It took until 1895 for the last state in the US to allow wives to have the right to monies they earned through their own work.
Like many things about marriage this sometimes has deeper implications for women than it has for men. Today most women aspire to a career and find great satisfaction in raising children. Historically women were often barred from many professions and the only way she could secure any measure of financial safety was to marry someone who was making a decent income.
An unmarried woman in her mid-twenties was often doomed to spinsterhood. This could mean a life in one a few lower paying jobs such as teaching, being a nanny, nursing, sewing and mending, secretarial or factory work and prostitution. Which is not to say that married women didn’t do many of those jobs as well. Single women unable to attain work often depended on the kindness of family members.
For middle and upper class women this made marriage a double-edged sword. If they had something to inherit it would end up in their husband’s control. But if they remained single then there would be no legitimate heir to pass property onto, and they would ultimately loose control of that property. Even feckless younger brothers stood to gain estates over sisters. In the absence of brothers some estates would only pass to a married woman – the family and the law not trusting their assets in the hands of a woman. Even distant cousins would be preferred over daughters – married or not.
Much of this is in the past. But still colors our thinking about how the world works in many ways.
One is that women are encouraged to “marry up,” while men are more likely to be looked down upon for seeking to enrich themselves by marriage. For many years it was one of the options open to women.
Another is in the lack of pay equity. Historically one of the justifications of paying a woman less for the same work was that she did not need as much. She had a husband or father already looking out for her, while a man quite likely, had a wife and children depending on him financially. While this was never a good justification it is no longer likely to be true. Very few families are able to make it on a single salary. And increasingly the person who is the head of a household is a single mother with children. They depend on her just as much as any wives and children depended on husbands of the past.
While the right to her own wages was secured at the end of the nineteenth century there many things that took a lot longer. Up until the 1970’s it was a legally required that a woman take her husband’s last name. In 1974 the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed in the US. This allowed single, divorced or widowed women to apply for a loan without a male co-signer. In 1986 women in the UK are granted the right to retire as the same age as men, and were finally allowed to take the more lucrative night shifts at factories.
Being a couple in the eyes of the law does grant some important benefits (See blog of November 8, 2016), but removing a woman’s legal agency because she is married is hopefully a thing of the past in this country and something that is being rectified in the rest of the world.