Many modern women in the US and Europe never question their right to open a bank account, own property, or even buy wine or beer in a pub. These rights, however, were hard won: for much of history, and even up to 40 years ago, middle-class women were not allowed to handle money; even having a job was seen as a sign of financial desperation. In the lastest addition to our Money and Feminism series, we trace the modern history of women and money.
Ancient Egypt, 3100 BCE and after: Women hold equal financial rights with men. As scholar Janet Johnson writes, “Egyptian women were able to acquire, to own, and to dispose of property (both real and personal) in their own name. They could enter into contracts in their own name; they could initiate civil court cases and could, likewise, be sued; they could serve as witnesses in court cases; they could serve on juries; and they could witness legal documents.” Women don’t always exercise these rights, Johnson says, because of social factors.
Biblical era, 1800BC and after): Under Jewish law, women have the right to own property and sue others in court without a man representing them. Wives can’t inherit directly from their husbands – unless it is a gift or they have no children – but daughters can inherit if they don’t have brothers. The Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Hebrew Bible, lays down an early law of personal finance: “If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter.” Sons who inherit are expected to use the estate to support the women in the family.
Ancient Hinduism, 1500BC and after: Women have the right to control stridhan, or property before marriage, which includes gifts from parents, friends and strangers as well as earnings from her own work. Divorce is not allowed and inheritance laws favor male family members.
Ancient Greece: Women’s financial rights are constrained compared to earlier societies. Women are not allowed to inherit property or take a case to court unless a male guardian is in charge. Women can, however, trade and engage in industry, such as tavern-keeping, although work in the classical watering hole is reserved for the lower classes.
Ancient Rome: The pendulum swings back as freeborn Roman women are allowed to divorce, own property and inherit. Divorce is easy to get – presaging the Christian opposition to splitting up marriages – but the husband has the legal right to keep the children.