Women, their Money, and the Law

Published 22nd June 2016


The First 100 Years project celebrates the right to enter the legal profession afforded by the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in 1919. The year before, women were politically enfranchised by the Right to Vote. But how did the law in the twentieth century continue to influence how women spent their money?

Money is one of our most powerful tools of communication. Historians and economists pore over people’s spending patterns to gauge what they value and are interested in. Despite the great significance of how we spend money, throughout the twentieth century there were legal restrictions on how women used their money.

A true landmark case had caused upheaval in the reality of the relationship between women and money in the late nineteenth century. The Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 restored the legal identity of wives as separate from their husbands and meant that they could own and control property in their own right. Previously, the doctrine of couverture had meant that a woman’s legal rights and obligations were subsumed by her husband after marriage, making her a dependent, similar to an under-age child.

Leaping forward a few decades into the 1950s, and the issues concerning women and their money were of a different nature. In the 1950s and 1960s it became common for married women to work, at least on a part-time basis. Technology transformed the domestic sphere by reducing housework, making it easier for women to enter employment. By 1959 two thirds of British homes had a vacuum cleaner, leaving two thirds of married women with greater opportunities to engage in paid work. Additionally, the growth in service industries led to greater opportunities for female employment. However, progress was slow in gaining legislative support for fair pay and employment opportunities. The World Wars had created a somewhat hostile economic climate for women in that patriarchal anxieties had been heightened by the severe losses in the numbers of young, healthy men.

It took until 1961 for legislation to come into effect to pay female teachers and female civil servants the same amount as their male counterparts. The Equal Pay Act of 1970 had established that women and men would be paid the same for doing the same job, and five years later in 1975 it became illegal to sack a woman for becoming pregnant. Strikes had been an essential trigger to the Equal Pay Act, as shown by the Ford sewing machinist strike of 1968 who played a ‘very significant part in the history of the struggle for equal pay’ according to MP Shirley Summerskill. Striking patterns continued to agitate for change in gender wages into the1980s, with the Hoover strike in Merthyr Tydfil in response to redundancy plans which had a ‘women out first’ policy.

UK law has moved in an emancipatory direction in terms of how it controls how women spend their money. Before 1982 women trying to spend their money in English pubs could legally be refused service, a reflection of the older societal norms that had established pubs as a ‘male-only’ social place. A traditional Fleet Street bar, El Vino, banned women to a back room in the name of chivalry. The origin of the ban was thought to date to the Second World War to prevent unescorted women of ill repute picking up customers. Protests against the rules had made themselves heard over a decade earlier, when in 1970 a group of female journalists demanded to be served because ‘our money is equal so our rights must be equal’. In the 1970s women could legally be refused the right to go drink unaccompanied.

The past century and a half has seen women and the law undergo significant developments with regard to their property and how they spend money. Equal pay remains to be a contentious issue in the UK; in 2013 there was a 19.7% gender based pay gap.