March is Women’s History Month. To mark the occasion, we took a deep dive into the history of women and homeownership from our days as the 13 colonies to recent legislative wins. Many of the earliest battles for women’s rights revolved around their desire to own and manage a home as single or married individuals.
Women battled tirelessly for centuries for property rights, the American Dream of homeownership and equality, and their work molded the contemporary real estate industry.
The First Steps
The first real sign of progress happened in 1718 when Pennsylvania passed an act permitting married women with a husband at war to act as a single woman in the eyes of the law. While their spouses were away, married women had the right to own and manage their homes much like a single woman. Up until this point, women operated under Coverture, or a system where they legally were required to act subordinate to their husbands in a number of areas, including homeownership. This was a promising step forward.
In 1771, a New York act required husbands to get their wives’ permission before buying or selling a home. The act required that a judge meet privately with the wife to ensure that she consented.
From 1839 to the 1880s, states individually passed Married Women’s Property Acts, leading to the eventual complete disassemblement of Coverture. With the common law struck down, women were no longer legally subordinate to their husbands in a marriage and could have control over owned property.
In 1844, Maine became the first state to grant married women a “separate economy”, meaning women legally gained the right to earn and retain their own income for personal use. This was an important preliminary step in the fight for women’s property rights and, more broadly, in their fight for equality.
It is crucial to note that the aforementioned advances in the fight for female property rights only applied to white women. Slavery was still practiced in the U.S. in the 1700s and much of the 1800s. Enslaved women did not have property rights of any kind as they were legally considered property themselves.
Real Legislative Momentum
In 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting women the right to vote. This had a substantial impact on women and their proximity to the American Dream of homeownership. With voting rights secured, women had an actual say in the residential real estate legislation that guided their rights as both consumers and professionals within the industry. The act offered women an autonomous voice which would lead to more progressive change within the real estate world.
Consequently, in 1968, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act which protects homebuyers, owners and renters from discrimination based on race, sex, religion, national origin and disabilities. The passing of the Fair Housing Act had enormous implications for both women and the Civil Rights movement. In large part, Black Americans led the charge to ensure every single American - man or woman - had access to the American Dream of Homeownership.
Women and Real Estate Today
Today, the real estate world has evolved drastically for women. In many ways, they’re dominating the industry. Following the 2008 housing crisis, single women had a homeownership rate averaging 50.9% while single men had a homeownership rate averaging 45.1%. And more recently, in 2019, single women accounted for the second largest homebuying group behind married couples.
Moreover, they’re running the industry. According to NAR, “Since 1978, women have comprised the majority of REALTORS®, representing 65 percent of the membership in 2021.” And while there are certainly strides left to make when it comes to representation in leadership and executive positions, women have become the backbone of this Association and the industry at large.