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When Were Women Legally Allowed to Open Bank Accounts in the United States?

When Were Women Legally Allowed to Open Bank Accounts in the United States?
Rebecca Safier
Rebecca SafierUpdated May 31, 2023
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Having the ability to open a bank account is a major part of navigating society. Without banking services, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to pay your bills, take out a loan, open a credit card, or achieve financial security and independence. While it may seem hard to believe, women in the U.S. were not legally allowed to open bank accounts until the 1960s. And it wasn’t until 1974 that they were granted the ability to open credit cards in their own name, separate from their husbands. While American society has made strides toward financial equality between men and women in the past century, there’s still a ways to go, especially when it comes to closing the pay gap and achieving equal representation in leadership positions in business and government. Read on to learn more about how far women have come when it comes to banking and money, and how much more there is to go.

A Brief History of Women and Banking in the USA

It took a long time for women to be granted the same financial rights as men in the United States. In the 1700s, women were actually considered to be the legal property of their husbands upon marriage. Any land, wealth, or other assets they brought to the marriage became their husband’s property. It wasn’t until 1771 that New York became the first state to make it a law that a husband must get his wife’s consent before he could sell any property she had brought into the marriage. In 1839, Mississippi became the first state to allow women to legally own property. Nine years later, New York passed the Married Women's Property Act, which allowed women to enter contracts, collect rent payments, and receive an inheritance. This act also made it so that wives were not automatically responsible for the debts that their husbands acquired. However, women still did not have legal protection against being discriminated against by the commercial banking industry and often faced barriers to opening their own bank accounts

The 1960s: When Women Could Open a Bank Account

There were some positive (localized) moves to help women gain access to banking during the 19th and early 20th centuries. One was an 1862 California law that allowed a woman to control any funds she deposited in her own name. Another was in 1919, when a bank opened in Tennessee specifically to serve women customers (the shareholders, however, were men). Nevertheless, women still faced overwhelming discrimination in the banking sector, and most institutions refused to allow them to hold any type of bank account of their own. Indeed, it wasn’t until the 1960s that it was legal for both single and married women to open their own bank accounts. Even then, many financial institutions still refused to open lines of credit or offer loans to women. And, they still faced discrimination. Women continued to be viewed as incapable of being responsible with money. As a result, banks saw them as financially risky and would not allow women to apply for credit and loans unless their husbands or fathers were willing to cosign the agreement.

The 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act

It wasn’t until 1974, and the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA), that women were finally able to apply for a credit card or a loan on their own. This law made it illegal for any financial institution or lender to discriminate against applicants based on gender, religion, race, or national origin. The ECOA also prohibits lenders from asking applicants about their marital status (the only exception is in “community property” states, which deem all marital property, for purposes of divorce, as property of both spouses).Before 1974, and the passage of this act, banks and credit card issuers could deny women access to banking services and credit without any legal repercussions.

Financial Gender Equality

Since receiving full rights to opening a checking or savings account and applying for credit cards, mortgages, and other types of loans, women have continued to make headway in the world of finance. A year after the ECOA was passed, the first female-owned bank opened its doors in New York City (indeed, feminist writer and activist Betty Friedan opened an account there). In 2000, Martha Stewart became the first self-made woman billionaire in the U.S. And in 2014, Janet Yellen became the first woman to head the Federal Reserve and, then in 2021, the first female Secretary of the Treasury.Despite the strides that have been made over the past centuries, financial inequality between men and women persists. One major issue is the wage gap. According to the Pew Research Center, women earned just 82% of what men made in 2022. This represents barely any change over 2002, when women earned 80% as much as men, revealing that there has not been much progress in the last two decades.As a whole, women continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions in the business world, accounting for just a small fraction of top executive and CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies. What’s more, women of color generally lag further behind white women when it comes to professional and financial status.

Why Financial Freedom for Women Is Important

Before women had the right to open a bank account or access credit, they were forced to be dependent on the men in their lives. Financial freedom empowers women to support themselves and their families without having to rely on anyone else or remain in a situation that’s not in their best personal or professional interests.The ability to participate in the economy is a key factor when it comes to women’s rights and gender equality. Not only does financial freedom empower individual women to make their own decisions and improve their quality of life, but it also helps economies grow as a whole. Indeed, a major part of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is focused on empowering women and closing gender gaps around the world. Recommended: Saving vs Investing: Which Is Right for You? 

Can Progress Still Be Made?

Yes. While the 1974 ECOA prohibited credit discrimination on the basis of sex and other identity factors, there’s a good deal of progress that still needs to be made. Women are still under-represented in high-paying occupations and STEM fields. According to the SRHM Executive Network, women reached a milestone in January 2023, when — for the first time in the history of the Fortune 500 list — more than 10% of these large U.S. companies are led by women. Nevertheless, it’s still a far cry from equality — and 50%.And, as mentioned above, there’s still a significant gender pay gap, meaning women’s median earnings lag behind those of men. Perhaps due to this pay gap, women hold more than half of the U.S. student loan debt, and take about two years longer to pay off their student loans

The Takeaway

Without a bank account and access to online banking, it can be a real challenge to do many basic things, such as paying your bills, getting a credit card, and obtaining any kind of personal or business loan. There are even some employers that only pay workers via direct deposit to a checking or savings account.Thus, it can be hard to imagine a time when women were not allowed to have a bank account. Yet this was the case in the U.S. not so long ago when banks simply would not allow women to open accounts.Fortunately, these days, women can be savvy banking customers and freely choose to open any type of bank account, from money market accounts to certificates of deposit (CDs) to the top high-yield savings accountsIf you’re currently looking for the best return on your savings, Lantern by SoFi can help. With our online banking marketplace, it’s easy to compare high-yield savings accounts based on APY, fees, and balance minimums.Lantern can help you compare online savings accounts and find today’s best rate.

Frequently Asked Questions

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Photo credit: iStock/jacoblund

About the Author

Rebecca Safier

Rebecca Safier

Rebecca Safier has nearly a decade of experience writing about personal finance. Formerly a senior writer with LendingTree and Student Loan Hero, she specializes in student loans, financial aid, and personal loans. She is certified as a student loan counselor with the National Association of Certified Credit Counselors (NACCC).
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