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.

No alt text provided for this image

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.


Does talking about money make you uncomfortable? That’s okay. Do it anyway.

A cartoon of a couple sitting at a table at a restaurant. The caption reads, "Honey, we have to talk about money in case one of us gets hit by a bus."
Original cartoon by Liza Donnelly

As published on LinkedIn as part of the SheMoney monthly newsletter.

I have been having a lot of difficult conversations lately, and many of them are about money. Despite how much I read and write about this topic, I still have a lot of work to do when it comes to my own relationship with my financial resources. And as it turns out, it’s not just me. I know this because over the past several months, I have asked friends of different ages and financial circumstances to share the difficult money conversations that they have either had or really need to have with their loved ones. And every day, that list keeps getting longer. To date, the range of topics covers every possible category of life, including education, family, friendships, dating, marriage, investments, and so much more.

For example, a friend entering into a serious relationship wondered when it was the right time to talk about money values with her prospective partner. Another friend, who is in the everyone-is-getting-married phase of her life, doesn’t know how to tell her friends that she really can’t afford to be a bridesmaid or attend a destination wedding. A very wealthy woman told me that she stopped asking her husband about their financial situation years ago, and now she doesn’t know how to ask about it without fear that her husband will think she does not trust him. I could go on and on.

A photo of Jacki Zehner talking to a group of women with a board full of post its in the background.

A photo of Jacki Zehner, talking to a group of seated women. There is a big board full of post-its behind her.It was questions like these that inspired last month’s ShePlace event at the Kiln in Park City, where we hosted our very first Money Mingle. For this event, we curated 11 introspective questions on the topic of money to help facilitate a discussion around our individual and collective challenges when it comes to caring for our financial well-being. We hung these prompts throughout the space and invited our guests to anonymously write their responses on post-its. We then shared these responses with the group and used them to guide our discussion. It was incredible how much there was to learn from one another, and it was wonderful to have the opportunity to really discuss the barriers we all share in common when it comes to engaging more fully with our financial resources. The top barriers that attendees listed and we discussed? Time, self-confidence, a feeling of being overwhelmed, and not knowing where to begin.

All of us at ShePlace were blown away by the event attendees’ willingness to be honest and vulnerable about their experiences with their money. Of course, it was simply not possible to solve everyone’s money challenges in one meeting. But we did get the conversation started and encouraged everyone to just do something. Not everything. Something.

Curious about the 11 questions? Click here to take a short money survey. I guarantee it will get you thinking about your own money story and the conversations you may need to have. All responses will be anonymous, but we will report back on the results, along with resources to address the most common questions.

So what was the difficult conversation about money that I most needed to have? For me, that difficult conversation revolved around “What if?” As in, what if I die prematurely? What would happen then? I had a health scare last year, and while I am okay now, my husband and I realized that our thinking, and our planning, was very outdated. I needed to have that conversation with my loved ones, because talking about the financial implications of your death is one of the most important conversations we all simply must have.

It is also essential to have a will. Full stop. Every adult needs a will. But if you don’t have one, don’t know where to start, and/or truly can’t afford to do it, I get it. As of May of last year, 68% of all Americans did not have a will, and while I really do not want to scare you, you really don’t want to die without one. To do so is called dying “intestate”, which means that instead of your estate being distributed as you would wish, it will be distributed according to intestacy laws. These vary country by country, and in the US, they also vary state by state. They also tend to be overly complex and difficult to navigate.

That being said, in general, when a person dies intestate, their estate is turned over to probate courts to be distributed among surviving spouses and descendants. While this may seem logically sound, it can have enormous negative implications on anyone in non-traditional families and/or those whose closest loved ones are not blood/legal relatives. Studies have also shown that the widespread phenomenon of unintended intestacy is greatly contributing to the problem of income inequality in the US. And data shows that intestacy unfairly and disproportionately affects minorities and other marginalized communities in many other negative ways.

So with all of these well documented downsides, why do nearly 70% of Americans still not have a will? Testamentary freedom, meaning the right of an owner of property to control its disposition in death, is a right that is enshrined in the US Constitution. And yet only 32% of Americans take advantage of this right? Academics have studied this issue to try and discern the reason, but like everything else in life, there are no easy answers. For example, some have theorized that psychological resistance to thinking about our own death is the main reason why so few adults have wills. And that makes sense to me. Both money and death can be taboo topics, so who wants to talk about wills, a topic that combines both? And yet people aren’t adverse to setting up other forms of non-testamentary transfers, such as life insurance and account beneficiaries, so that can’t be the whole reason. It has also been speculated that the entire process of creating a legal will is and/or is perceived as being too complex, unwieldy, and costly. And this is probably true. But there are lots of resources available to help guide people through the process of creating their own will. I plan on sharing these in the coming months through an upcoming series of ShePlace money guides, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, please start talking to your family about what will happen to your estate when you die. Create and/or update your will. And make sure that your loved ones are having these same conversations about their own estates. Make no mistake, being willing to have these difficult conversations means being willing to be vulnerable, and that takes so much courage. And if you need some guidance on this, I suggest you look into the work of Brené Brown, a researcher who has spent decades studying courage, vulnerability, empathy, and shame. I have not yet had the privilege of meeting Ms. Brown, but she is at the top of my list of people with whom I’d love to have dinner, and I highly recommend all her work, including her books, podcasts, and Netflix special. There is so much to say about all of it, but she says it so much better than me.

A close up headshot photo of Brene Brown looking straight into the camera and smiling.

So here is my main takeaway as it relates to difficult conversations about money. Just do it. Be vulnerable. Yes, it will be hard. But the benefits will outweigh the cost. I promise.

And… Happy Holidays! Wishing you and yours the very best.

As always, thanks to Lisa Donnelly for her collaborative and original cartoon.