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The history of women and credit cards

Woman handing credit card to shop owner while paying for purchase
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images
Woman handing credit card to shop owner while paying for purchase
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images
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It’s been a long, hard road to establish gender equality in personal finance. While there are still a few areas under construction, great strides have certainly been made. In March, the United States recognizes Women’s History Month, a time to commemorate the individuals, laws and events that led to a smoother playing field.

Although credit cards are a modern product, they haven’t always been accessible to women. Here’s a look at why, what brought about key changes and where we are now.

1848: The Married Women’s Property Act

To get a credit card in your name, you need the ability to sign a legal agreement and have financial autonomy. Prior to 1848, however, a married woman had neither. She couldn’t form contracts, control her own income, transfer or sell property or instigate a lawsuit. The property she brought into the relationship became her husband’s, and her assets could be used to pay for his debts.

The Married Women’s Property Act, therefore, set an early stage for credit opportunity and equality. Once passed, married women were allowed to enter contracts, collect rents and receive inheritance. She could control her sole and separate property, and not be automatically responsible for her spouse’s financial obligations.

The suffragettes were instrumental in the passage of this bill, including Susan B. Anthony. In her diary, dated November 11, 1853 Anthony wrote: “Woman must have a purse of her own, & how can this be, so long as the wife is denied the right to her individual and joint earnings. Reflections like these caused me to see and really feel that there was no true freedom for woman without the possession of all her property rights… This demand must be made by Petitions to the Legislature…”

1862: California Banking Law and the Homestead Act

A key component to becoming a viable borrower is having a checking or savings account at a bank with which to make payments. The right to open deposit accounts wasn’t granted to women until 1862. That was the year that California passed a law establishing a woman’s right to bank under her own name, regardless of marital status. The Homestead Act then allowed women to homestead as head of a household. Such control over banking and property laid the foundation for lending.

That same year, San Francisco Savings Union made the first loan to a woman in the U.S. In fact, that financial institution published pamphlets about it, advertising the new-fangled right: “Married women and minors, making deposits in their own name, can withdraw them themselves.”

1919: First Women’s Bank of Tennessee opened

Despite legal advances, many refused to provide women with bank accounts of their own. At the beginning of the 20th century, banks remained a masculine domain.

In response, the First Women’s Bank of Tennessee was created. It catered exclusively to female customers. To make the experience more hospitable for the feminine clientele, it was staffed with female employees and directors (though the bank’s shareholders were men). Although women didn’t have legal protection against unfair lending practices at this point, changing the face of banking was a step in the right direction.

1938: The Fair Labor Standards Act

In order to qualify for credit, you need to have sufficient income to give the issuer confidence that you can manage the resulting bill. Women remained at a disadvantage, though, because they were regularly paid less than men for the same job. Even if they wanted to borrow money, they may not have qualified.

Wage inequality started to end in 1938 with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1838. Among other provisions, it prevented employers from paying workers different hourly wages because of their sex.

The battle for income protections wasn’t over, though, and in 1963 the Equal Pay Act amended the Fair Labor Standards Act, to include all forms of compensation, such as salary, overtime, bonuses, life insurance, vacation and holiday pay, and benefits.

1958: The first credit card was introduced

Credit cards are a relatively new invention. The first universal payment card to hit the market was the BankAmericard, which launched in 1958. This revolutionary payment tool allowed consumers to charge items and services, then pay for what they bought in installments and revolve balances if they wished.

Thanks to credit cards, no longer would a person need to carry large sums of cash or a checkbook, and they could delay payments until they were ready to satisfy the debt, thus leveraging their capital. Credit cards offered users valuable economic freedom.

Freedom for whom, though? Men, mostly. During this time, women did not possess full rights to open these accounts on their own. If a woman wanted a credit card, a man would usually have to cosign—even if she earned more than he did and would be paying the bills.

“The inequality was just vile,” says Vrinda Gupta, fintech pioneer and Visa alum. “Right from the beginning the credit system was truly not designed with women in mind.”

1974: The Fair Credit Opportunity Act

It took 16 years before women were finally granted the legal right to open a credit card in their own name. Even if women managed to get a credit product, the amount they could borrow from a credit card or loan was often smaller than a man would get with the same credit and financial profile.

After widespread complaints from women about unfair gender-based lending practices, legislation was introduced and passed into law. In 1974, the Fair Credit Opportunity Act made it illegal for any financial institution to discriminate against applicants based on their religion, race, national origin—and gender. Lenders were no longer able to ask applicants about their marital status, unless it was in states with “community property” laws on the books.

2012: The Credit CARD Act amendment for stay-at-home parents

Another pivotal law was enacted in 2009: the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act (Credit CARD Act), which was passed to protect credit card users against abusive lending practices. It reduced fees, and ensured that credit issuers would disclose the costs and penalties associated with charging. The law was powerful, but something was missing.

“The biggest surprise for me is that not all women had access to credit until 2012,” says Diane Bourdo, president of the financial planning firm The Humphries Group, who also mentors female undergraduate and graduate students who are pursuing careers in finance. “It was not until then that [a woman’s] share of the household income could be used to prove she could pay off credit cards.”

According to the latest Pew Research data, 83 percent of primary child caregivers are female. “It took an amendment to the Credit CARD Act for stay-at-home mothers to access credit on their own,” Bourdo says.

Independent access to credit is a crucial step in anyone’s financial life, says Bourdo. Mothers who are caring for their children should not be excluded.

2020: First female CEO of a major bank

The latest great moment for women and credit cards could barely be more recent. It came in the form of leadership.

Citigroup, one of the biggest credit card issuers in the world, made history when CEO Michael Corbat retired from his position. Jane Fraser, then the company’s retail banking chief, became the first female CEO of a major U.S. bank in 2020.

Today: More women take the credit lead

For bankers and consumers alike, representation matters. When women are present in leadership roles, they bring perspective. Krista Phillips, executive vice president and head of branded cards and marketing at Wells Fargo, says changes began to occur when the major banks started to realize how many of the household financial decisions were made by female cardholders.

“From everyday purchases to major investment decisions that build wealth, more women today have become primary or joint financial decision-makers,” says Phillips. “It’s an important shift for banks and other financial institutions to recognize so we can collectively sharpen the focus on the financial needs of women.”

As for Gupta, she’s pushing boundaries with a credit-building product, Sequin, that tackles the pink tax—products marketed toward women that are more expensive than those for men, resulting in gender-based price discrimination—by gearing the rewards toward female-centric spending categories.

“We are also closing the credit education gap by giving women a safe space to talk about it,” says Gupta. “Women are half as likely to receive financial education than men.”

Clearly the final chapter in the book of women and credit history has not yet been written. Crucial advances toward equality have been made, so now it’s time to make sure everyone—including industry leaders, legislators and credit cardholders—are all on the same page.

Written by
Erica Sandberg
Credit And Money Management Expert Contributor
Erica Sandberg is a credit and money management expert who began her career at Consumer Credit Counseling Service (CCCS). There, she helped individuals and families overcome their debt issues and developed budgets, then transitioned into the agency’s primary media spokesperson.
Edited by
Senior Editor