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When Spinsters Couldn't Get Credit

When Spinsters Couldn't Get Credit

By Tracy Moran



Because a woman’s work is never done.

By Tracy Moran

Billie Jean King had served up Wimbledon gold several times, but when it came to establishing a credit history, she kept hitting the net. The tennis champ couldn’t get her hands on a credit card unless she used the name of her husband, Larry — an unemployed law student she happened to be supporting at the time. Lindy Boggs, who ran for her husband’s congressional seat after his plane disappeared in 1972, faced a similar struggle for credit as a widow.

While women have always been a part of the workforce in varying capacities, it wasn’t until World War II that working middle-class females became a thing. When the bombs stopped dropping, the ladies got laid off en masse to make room for the returning men. But they eventually bounced back, and women have been entering the labor force in increasing numbers ever since, earning livings and contributing to household economies. But just as steadily, through the mid-1970s, they continued to lack access to independent credit or credit histories — a discriminatory truth that left spinsters, divorcées and widows financially vulnerable. 

It’s an example of the kind of sexism that was partly overcome, but that still did not negate the need for an Equal Rights Amendment.

Until 1974, “women encountered significant barriers to obtaining credit, even when they were the primary wage earners in their families,” according to From Suffrage to the Senate. It wasn’t until after Boggs’ husband died that she realized women faced such discrimination. “[Boggs] had what we’d call a pretty solid, well-paying job, but she had no access to credit,” says Janet Golden, a history professor at Rutgers University, noting how the congresswoman’s struggle motivated fellow female activists and her male colleagues to seek change.

Financial gender discrimination goes farther back than credit equity, of course. For centuries, whatever assets a wife brought to a marriage became her husband’s property. That changed with the U.K.’s Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, but securing credit remained tricky, because women were denied credit cards unless they used their husband’s names. Spinsters, divorcées and widows had to rely on male relatives to cosign — or they went without. Without credit, they couldn’t buy homes or cars on their own, and they also struggled to open businesses. “Even if you were a wage earner, you never had a credit history,” Golden explains. 

That meant women, many of whom had been in the workforce for decades by the 1970s, were paying household bills but had nothing to show for it if the marriage ended. While both husband and wife had employment histories, only the man walked away with a credit history and the ability to reset his life with relative ease. She, on the other hand, was “not going to be able to buy a house. Without credit, it may have even been difficult to rent a place or get a car loan,” says Golden. 

Having retained her husband’s seat on the Senate banking committee, Boggs, according to Karen Foerstel’s Biographical Dictionary of Congressional Women, used her Southern charm to win approval for the inclusion of “sex” and “marital status” in drafting the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which had focused on race, age and veteran status. “I’m sure it was just an oversight that we didn’t have sex or marital status included,” Boggs told her colleagues, and the act passed unanimously in 1974, making it illegal for creditors to discriminate based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age or access to public assistance.

But for all its merit, the ECOA was something of a consolation prize for losing the earlier fight for an Equal Rights Amendment, says Golden. In 1972, Congress passed the ERA, which President Gerald Ford signed and supported. But fighting among feminist camps and resistance by several states spelled the legislation’s doom. “We don’t have an Equal Rights Amendment, so we’re going to get a marginal effort at improving women’s equality,” says Golden, noting how the ECOA was supported by the same groups that had pushed for an ERA, including the National Organization for Women, the Women’s Equity Action League and the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Since 1974, banks can no longer deny women credit cards in their own names without being subject to damages. But that doesn’t mean all businesses behave when it comes to women and finances. Just last week, a woman in Tucson, Arizona, posted in Facebook’s Pantsuit Nation group that she had endured gender discrimination when trying to buy windows, alleging that the company required both her and her husband to be present for the transaction. And studies show investors are far less likely to invest in female entrepreneurs.

Access to credit is certainly more equitable today than in 1973, but the system isn’t perfect. Banks can’t charge women higher interest or fees based on gender, assuming they are as creditworthy as their male counterparts, but some companies stand accused of failing to treat women equally. This means those old assumptions still exist, Golden says.

“It’s an example of the kind of sexism that existed that was partly overcome,” she says, “but that still did not negate the need for an Equal Rights Amendment.”

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