A Look Back at the History of Women and Money

A cartoon of cavewomen sitting around a rock table. The caption reads, "I just think if we control the money, we control everything."
Original Cartoon by Liza Donnelly

As published on LinkedIn as part of the SheMoney newsletter.

Next week, on March 8th, we will celebrate International Women’s Day. Since 2017, I have marked this occasion by publishing a list of the top reports that support gender lens investing, giving, and impact. In 2017, that list was 400 strong. By 2020, that list had grown to 650 reports, and in 2021, I published a list of an additional 100 reports. This year, I have another addendum of 50 more reports, along with a special bonus section featuring 15 reports related to Web 3.0, Digital Assets, Blockchain, and DeFi. Why? Because these areas truly are the new and very exciting frontier, and no one can be left behind! Altogether, that’s over 800 reports. What’s astonishing is that this list is nowhere near comprehensive. There are hundreds, if not thousands more that could easily be included.

Normally, I publish this list with a catchy headline that sings to the tune of “The Time is Now!” As in, here’s the data, now let’s use it to advance great positive change. This year, however, I’m feeling a little more along the lines of “Enough is Enough People!” I get especially sassy when talking about the lack of capital going to diverse fund managers and founders. That said, tradition is tradition, so please take a minute to scan the reports and see if you can leverage the data contained within them to support your work to advance gender equity and inclusion efforts.

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I also want to do something different this year in honor of Women’s History Month. I’d like to take this opportunity to take a quick look at the history of money. More specifically, I want to look at the history of women and money. This is SheMoney, after all.

Once upon a time, men created money…

Of course, it was actually a lot more complicated than that. For starters, humans got along just fine without money for tens of thousands of years. Instead, goods and services were bartered according to their perceived value. This system was eventually condensed down to a few items that were easily tradable, such as salt, spices, flint, tools, and animal pelts. These became the first known currencies of trade.

Money, in the modern sense, actually began approximately 5,000 years ago in Ancient Mesopotamia with the invention of the shekel. This is also when the first accounting systems were developed for keeping track of financial transactions. In 770 BCE, China created the first monetary coin, followed in 700 BCE by the first paper money. Things got really serious in 600 BCE when King Alyattes of Lydia (modern day Turkey) created the first historical mint to produce the first official currency in the world. Note that that’s King Alyattes. The history of money is indeed dominated by men.

So where are the women?

Just like the history of money, the history of women and money is just as complicated. In fact, the right for women to own, control, and dictate their own money and property is not as straightforward as a mere uphill battle to equality. Instead, this journey has been full of ups and downs.

For example, in Ancient Egypt, women had the same rights to money as men. They could buy and sell property in their own name, enter into contracts, and witness legal documents. However, due to social factors, women didn’t always exercise these rights, but they were there. And as the centuries rolled on, women’s rights regarding money swung back and forth like a pendulum. In Ancient Greece, women had few rights to their money, while in Ancient Rome they had many. But again, social conventions often prevented women from taking full advantage of whatever rights they did have.

A personal favourite woman in the history of women and money is Empress Theodora, wife of Emperor Justinian I. She is considered by some historians to have been the most powerful woman of the Byzantine Empire. Through her influence on her husband, women were granted expanded property and inheritance rights, forced prostitution and the killing of adulterous wives was banned, and women gained legal recourse to their own children. Was Theodora the first Financial Feminist? I think she just might be.

Now let’s take a big leap forward.

Remember that swinging pendulum? It took a hard curve backwards in the 12th century with the establishment of coverture in England. Under this new system, a husband and wife were considered to be one financial entity, and all financial autonomy was subsumed by the man. This meant that women were seen as the property of their husbands, and once this idea took hold, it would take centuries to undo.

In fact, it wasn’t until the 19th century that women began to regain their right to control their own money. The turning point was the passage of the historic Married Women’s Property Act in New York in 1848. Women were finally seen under the law as their own financial entities once more. In New York at least, but other states soon followed. As similar acts were enacted, women throughout North America could finally own property in their own name, inherit, and sign contracts. It was a good start in moving that pendulum forward.

Things picked up once again in the 1960s, when laws were passed that prohibited wage discrimination between men and women, expanded employee benefits for women, and made it illegal to specify a gender on a job posting. In 1974, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed, followed by the Lily Ledbetter Act in 2009. We have come a long way, but the road to equality is far from over.

In fact, in looking towards the future, it is very clear just how much is at stake. With the rise of mobile payment systems, cryptocurrencies, blockchain technologies, and decentralized finance more generally, it is clear that the landscape is changing, and changing rapidly. I just returned from Rwanda last week, and mobile payment systems are indeed common place. We are in the early innings of all of this, and I am of the belief that it will all be revolutionary. My concern? That the technologies that are being built to democratize finance may end up benefitting only a relatively small demographic; namely, tech savvy men. My motto? #nowomanleftbehind

March may be Women’s History Month, but this year I want to look forward and celebrate our future. A future that is hopefully leading us to a world where our financial systems not only serve everyone, but offer more balanced access to wealth creation as well. I recently heard someone say, “It is expensive to be poor”. Indeed it is, and it should not be at a time when we have the tools and human capital to create a world where everyone can flourish.


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