When Could Women Own Land? | askBAMLand

Our history as a human race casts a grim shadow of how we have treated our women and the rights we have given them, including land ownership.

The right for women to own land began in 1839 through legislation, which created a slow transition for states to begin adopting the concept.  However, the reality is that women were subjugated to discrimination for decades that limited their ability to own land through societal biases.  

The sad truth is that even though the passing of various legislation around the United States made it possible for women to ‘own’ land, the prospect of them legitimately owning the land came under great scrutiny and backlash by our male-dominated society.  In reality, it took over a century of feminist activism and protests by women to even come close to becoming independent landowners.  Unfortunately, there are many countries around the world to this day that still either limit or completely prohibit the ownership of land by women.  To understand this further, let’s dive into when women could truly begin owning land.

The United States began passing legislation that gave women ownership rights in the late 1700s.  This led to legislation passed independently by each individual state throughout the mid-1800s, which granted women various land ownership rights by the United States Government.

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Land Ownership For Women

To understand the full scope of when women actually were able to own land in the United States, it’s worth taking a look at the evolving history of women’s rights, which, unfortunately, is a fight that still continues to this day. Throughout the history of not only our nation but the entire human race, women have been subdued by men to fall into traditional gendered roles, which limit a women’s activities, freedoms, and ability to own pretty much anything - including land.

This is rooted in a historic bias of our species for a man to be a breadwinner and a woman to be a nurturer.  This ingrained practice has resulted in women having fewer opportunities throughout all of human history, which is something that tragically echos to this day. The good news is that - although at a much slower pace than most of us would like - women’s voices are beginning to be heard worldwide.

We live in a world where women are becoming world leaders, cultural icons, and truly valued members of society that have just as much right to live a quality life of freedom as any other person.  While society is moving in the right direction, we still have a long way to go for women to have true equality in this world.

While we have made major advances in women’s rights and their ability to own property in the western world, much of the undeveloped world is still lacking in giving women a fair chance at an equal life.  In fact, there are many countries around the globe that greatly limit the number of rights that women have and their ability to own land.  Let’s dig deep into the progress that women have made in owning land and how we will continue this on a national and global stage.

Women’s Rights And Legislation (19th Century)  

Since women to this day have limited rights in not only underdeveloped countries but even many developed ones, analyzing the true progress that feminist activism and legislation have made can be tricky.

It’s all too common in our society for a piece of legislation to mark the beginning of a new law and new way of thinking, but in reality, it’s really just a milestone in an uphill battle for true change.  Unfortunately, change is something that occurs much too slowly in this world, which results in the individuals that benefit from the change needing to endure and suffer through the transition.

With that being said, a woman’s right to own land is not something that occurred overnight and the passing of legislation was not the one-time solution to an ongoing global issue.  To solidify a women’s right to own land and be treated as an equal member of society took a lot of bravery, patience, and heroic activism.

While our current generation in the western world is beginning to view women’s equality as normal, the truth is that women’s rights are still a relatively new concept in our society, and for many (especially older generations) the idea of a woman being equal to a man is still not something that is fully accepted.

Here are the pivotal moments in feminine rights that led to women being able to own land.

1771 New York

Given that the United States allows states to govern themselves within the confinements of laws created by the federal government, certain states began the process of granting women certain property rights much earlier than others.  The federal acceptance of such rights generally began with a chain reaction of state legislations that made women’s rights a mainstream concept.

In 1771 the Act to Confirm Certain Conveyances and Directing the Manner of Proving Deeds to Be Recorded in the State was created.  While this was not monumental legislation that immediately spread across the United States, it did mark the beginning of women being allowed the right to own land.

Prior to this, it was practically unheard of for a woman to be able to own land in any way shape, or form.  This legislation, however, did not allow women to independently buy land on their own. What the Act to Confirm Certain Conveyances and Directing the Manner of Proving Deeds to Be Recorded legislation did allow was for women to have certain rights of what happens to properties owned by a married couple.

This right was granted if a women’s signature was on any deed of shared assets by both husband and wife.  While this was a groundbreaking start for women’s rights, it could in many ways be limited by the husband in the relationship by subduing her rights by force or manipulation.

Nonetheless, this did create a new way of thinking about women’s rights to own property and eventually their own land.  After the passing of this legislation, other states that were more progressive began to follow suit and adopt a similar type of practice.

Married Women's Property Acts

For decades after the Act to Confirm Certain Conveyances and Directing the Manner of Proving Deeds to Be Recorded, women continued to assume a highly genderized role in American society, which greatly limited their ability to become free and independent from men.

Although there were minor rulings and legislations initiated in certain states, the progress that was made towards women’s property rights was still far too slow due to the backlash and defiance by male-dominant figures.  However, a monumental step was made towards the feminist cause in 1839 with the passing of the Married Women’s Property Acts.

It was this piece of legislation that truly began to challenge the widely accepted coverture that women have been enduring within society.  In fact, the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1839 may be considered among the most historically crucial pieces of legislation passed in the fight for equal rights for women.

While the official Married Women’s Property Acts began passing in various states in 1839, it was not until New York passed its Married Women's Property Law in 1848 until it became a solidified concept in the United States.  This eventually served as the platform for which all other states began to adopt their own women’s laws and property rights.  Let’s take a look at some of the groundbreaking changes the Married Women’s Property Acts initiated in our society.

Property Control

This legislation is the first time in American history that women were legitimately given the right to control their own property.  Prior to this legislation, anything a woman owned would likely be under the official ownership of her husband; unless a woman inherited property from a deceased spouse, she did not have legal rights to property that ethically should have been hers.

Once states began adopting the Married Women’s Property Acts, women around the United States were rejoicing in a freedom that they had long been fighting for a rightfully deserved.  This gave women the right to own and acquire property on their own accord without the need of relying on a husband to provide support for them.

In addition, the Married Women’s Property Acts gave women the right to own anything that was rightfully theirs.  This was truly the most monumental shift that enabled women to legally own their own property with full independence.

Labor Rights

Prior to the passing of the Married Women’s Property Acts, a women’s right to work was a concept skewed by men; society did not allow women to work for themselves and keep their well-earned profits.

This legislation enabled women to go out and find work on their own terms and keep the profits from their job for themselves.  This not only enabled a woman to earn money for anything of material value but also granted women the opportunity to save to buy their own property.  

Given that women could not own their own property or legally earn money prior to the Married Women’s Property Acts, their independence was completely subdued by men in society.  With that being said, while this legislation did make all of these opportunities a possibility, they were not always realistic.

It was especially common for women to be treated as second-class citizens in the workplace and denied the ability to work many jobs.  In addition, women were often paid a fraction of the wage that men were in society.  This made it especially challenging for women who were trying to get ahead in society without being reliant on a husband.

Legal Participation

The Married Women’s Property Acts gave women the right to be legitimate participants in legal processes without the need of a husband present.

This means that women could participate in court and also file their own lawsuits against other individuals.  

This is another monumental shift for women’s rights, as it is the first time a woman could truly represent herself in court and seek justice.

Contracts

Before this legislation took effect, women were not permitted to sign official documents and contracts.  This means that women had no legal authority to possessive rights unless authorized by her husband.

The Married Women’s Property Acts initiated the right for a women’s signature to hold legal weight and have just as much power as a man’s.

The benefits of this came with being able to sign for certain financial opportunities such as loans, which is a crucial stepping stone in women being able to rely on the help of banks in acquiring land.

Wills

Since a woman did not have the right to legally own land (let alone her own property) prior to the Married Women’s Property Acts, they did not have any say as to what happens to anything they could have potentially owned after they pass away.

As mentioned In 1771 the Act to Confirm Certain Conveyances and Directing the Manner of Proving Deeds to Be Recorded, granted women in certain states to have a certain level of authority regarding what happens to their husband’s property, it did not give women the actual right to own the property independently.

This legislation changed that by allowing women the right to write their own wills and determine what should happen to their property and belongings after they pass away - including any land that they may own.

While all of these rights were established as a result of the Married Women’s Property Acts, the degree to which they were upheld and ingrained was dependant on a case-by-case basis for each state; certain states gave their women more rights than others.

Women’s Rights And Legislation (20th/21st Century)

The advances made by women towards feminine equality during the 19th century were monumental, but women still were nowhere near achieving full equality in American society.

Despite the fact that progressive legislations such as the Married Women’s Property Acts and the Act to Confirm Certain Conveyances and Directing the Manner of Proving Deeds to Be Recorded were legally in effect, women were still viewed and treated as second class citizens.

The reason for this is that genderized roles have been so ingrained within the United States, as well as the rest of the world, that people adjusted to these changes quite slowly and even with defiance.  Many men were conflicted by these new rights that women were proclaiming and actively worked to undermine the progress that feminism was moving towards.

We saw this play out in many different facets of society, which hindered the growth that women had the potential to become equal in society and made legitimately owning land much harder.  Much of this had to do with women’s husbands not respecting legislation that had been passed but also by not being supportive partners to their wives in achieving more in life.

This sort of mentality carried into the 20th century with women still continuing to live in a society that greatly favored male-dominant figures.  However, the feminist movement did continue to grow and even take major leaps towards equality during this time period, which were monumental in enabling women to be the landowners that they have rightfully become today.  

1919 Women’s Right To Vote

Throughout all of American history until the 20th century, the only individuals that were legitimately allowed to pass legislation were white males.  This greatly tipped the scale in the favor of white men being on top throughout much of modern history in the western world, which has greatly slowed down the progress of a women’s right to own land.

It wasn’t until the year 1919 that congress passed legislation that finally granted women the right to vote in the United States.  This is one of the most groundbreaking moments in the feminist movement for achieving equal rights.  Finally, women were given the ability to have their voices heard on the same stage as men with just as much right to dictate the direction of our country and the right to stand up for their freedom.

This was a pivotal moment in the history of women’s rights, which enabled us to get closer to the far more equal society we live in today.  The women’s right to vote was passed as the 19th Amendment of the United States and rocked the boat of the entire country; bringing us closer to a balanced playing field for all.

It was this amendment that created a platform for women to advocate for further rights that could enable them to own land.  Prior to this legislation, women could be discriminated against in the job market by either being denied certain positions or being given a lower wage.

With that being, this is something that we still continue to fight for in our society, as this is something that women still have to endure to a certain degree.  More on this later.

Nonetheless, this was a huge victory for women that was part of a global shift in western civilization to grant women the right to be active participants in society and to bring them closer to being legitimate landowners.

Factors To Consider

As the 20th century progressed after the 19th Amendment was passed, women began to take more prominent roles in society and the job market.  All of which enabled them to be treated with more equality and the right to become financially independent.

The feminist movement, however, continued to be an uphill battle for women, as males still dominated much of politics, as well as the job market.  Discrimination was something that women were subjected to in just about all aspects of society, which in turn makes becoming an independent landowner a difficult task.

The reality is that genderized roles continued well into the 20th century and still do in so many ways to this day.  Throughout the majority of the 20th-century women were still subdued to being housewives.

In addition, there were official laws within American society that ran well into the 20th century that greatly limited women’s rights to be financially independent and lowered their potential for acquiring property on their own.

Let’s take a look at some of the discriminatory laws and practices that women have had to overcome to independently own land.

Job Discrimination

Since the 20th century opened up a lot of opportunities for women to access the job market and become equal members of society, many women began applying for work all over the country. This, however, proved to be far more challenging than what most women could have hoped for, as there was an enormous amount of discrimination going on in the workplace.  

Males dominate most high-paying jobs in the country and aimed to keep it that way.  In addition, most of the people that hire new staff for positions tend to always be men throughout most of the 1900s.  This led to a lot of women being rejected for many of the positions within the country and forced to work jobs that men did not want to work.

This resulted in women working a lot of jobs such as:

  • Typists
  • Nurses
  • Assistants/Receptionists

By alienating women to fall into these job-specific roles men continued to perpetuate our gender roled society, which limits the opportunities that women can have in the United States.  By keeping women in these lower-paid positions, men were able to limit the financial benefits of women, which hindered their ability to buy their own land.

Luckily, we have watched this significantly change during the 21st century, as we are seeing women work much more prominent jobs in society.  By today’s standards women can be found working in as many fields and positions within the workforce as men.  This includes everything from business owners, managers, CEOs, doctors, and politicians.  While job discrimination is still something that occurs in the 21st century, the progressive leap that women have made in our society has been immense.

Wage Gap

Aside from being discriminated against in the workforce, women have also been paid significantly less than men.  

It was very common for women to be given job opportunities that as a standard would pay significantly less than male-dominated jobs, but often women would even be paid less for doing the same work as men.

The wage gap between men and women is something that we as a society are striving to eliminate to ensure that there are equal opportunities for everyone.  While we have made major advances in lowering the wage gap, it still does very much exist to this day.

It’s reported that the current wage gap between men and women is still quite severe - with women earning 82 cents for every dollar that a man makes.  This is an improvement from the mid 20th century where the wage gap was a woman earning 60 cents for every dollar a man earned.

In addition, women have had a more challenging time establishing a line of credit or even being able to apply for a loan. It wasn’t until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act established in 1974 that women were even allowed to own a credit card without being tied to their husbands.  This means that a woman would not be allowed to be truly financially independent until even the late 20th century, which meant that many women could only acquire land by having cash upfront or with the consent of their husbands.

The disproportionate income and lack of credit opportunity is not only a limitation on a woman’s ability to afford basic daily necessities in life but also it greatly hinders a woman’s chance of buying her own land.

Land Ownership For Women Of Color

The prospect of owning land for women, regardless of the color of their skin, has been a fight that the feminist movement has strived to achieve for centuries.  However, no one has been subdued in the fight more than people of color and especially women of color.

Land Ownership For Women Of Color (19th Century)

During the groundbreaking Married Women’s Property Acts of 1848, all African American’s were still considered slaves in the United States, which made the idea of owning land a fantasy - let alone a legitimate goal.

Once slavery was abolished in 1865, even the Married Women’s Property Acts meant practically nothing to any African American woman in this country.  African American men and African American women were still highly discriminated against, treated unequally, and had much more challenges ahead of them than simply acquiring land.  

With that being said, certain reparations were made to African Americans after the end of the Civil War.  African Americans were given ‘40 Acres and a Mule’, but the facts of this have been greatly skewed and whitewashed by society.  The reality of this is that many African American’s were denied this right or had it stripped away from them later on.  This occurred by white settlers and even government legislation forcing African Americans off of their land, as far as the early 20th century.

Land Ownership For Women Of Color (20th/21st Century)

Moving into the 20th and 21st centuries, African American women to this day continue to struggle with obtaining land in this country.  Much of this has had to do with housing rights being denied to African American’s throughout the last 100 years, which included legislation in certain neighborhoods denying mortgages for homes that were segregated for black residents.

While African American women have technically had just as much ‘right’ to own land in the United States as white women in recent history, the wage gap that African American women face in this country is far more severe than for white women - with black women making 37% less income than the average white male and 20% less than the average white woman.  

This disadvantage is exacerbated even further with African American women who do own land being racially discriminated against by land appraisers - with certain appraisers commonly downgrading the worth of land owned by black women by as much as 40-50% in some cases.

African American women and women of color, have had the most challenging time acquiring land in our country.  While we are becoming more progressive towards women’s rights, there is still a long way to go for our society to be equal for land ownership for all.

Land Ownership For Women Internationally

Around the time that the United States began adopting more inclusive and equal rights for women, so did much of the rest of the developed world.  We can see various nations throughout Western Europe and other countries such as Australia and New Zealand follow a similar transitional pattern as America, which led to more women having the right to own land.

In fact, many nations in these areas actually have an even better wage gap for women and less discrimination in workplace environments than in the United States.  This has resulted in more women in these parts of the world having a fairer chance at achieving a livable income and a higher potential for owning land. However, there are still many countries that do not have modern legislation in place that values equal rights for women.  Most of these countries are underdeveloped and have not had the opportunity to economically thrive as a society.

While the degree of land ownership varies greatly around the world, there seems to be an underlying level of patriarchy that continues to dominate the globe. This has led many women in these countries to experience many of the same hardships that women faced in the United States during the 19th century.

It’s still quite common for women to only have partial rights to land or none at all.  This can be extremely troubling for women that lose their husbands and are then forced off their land, which perpetuates poverty and homelessness.  Many women that end up experiencing this have families, which can result in an entire generation going down a downward spiral of a struggled life filled with poverty.

Let’s explore some examples of countries that are dealing with this issue.

Rwanda

This African nation experienced a tragic genocide during the 1990s, which led to a disproportionate population that resulted in more women living in the country than men.

Through this, women were placed in a position to be in charge of most households, which required them to be resourceful and ultimately, the breadwinner of their families.

As Rwanda recovers from its past tragedy, a stunning revelation has taken place where women have gained high ground in their roles within the country and are valued members of society.  It’s due to this that women have a substantial foothold in Rwanda’s politics and own just as much, if not more, land in the country than men.

Ethiopia

In a rural country that is greatly covered by farmland, understanding property lines and titles can be quite confusing and opaque.  In addition, for all of the 20th century, Ethiopia did not have designated legislation that granted women the right to own property or inherit their husbands after he passed away.

This led to many women being forced off their land by either invasive farmers or even by the government.  However, this began to change as Ethiopia established legislation that created joint titles between spouses, which allow for ethical property transitions when a spouse is deceased.

Common sense legislation such as this is being passed throughout most of Africa and in some parts of Asia to ensure that women are given a fair chance at acquiring their own land and inheriting a property that should rightfully be theirs.

Ongoing Unequal Land Rights For Women (International)

With that being said, the fight for women’s rights to own land is nowhere near won and we still have a long way to go as a global society before women truly have equal property rights.  

Around the globe, there are still 35 countries that do not allow women to have equal inheritance rights to the property of their deceased husbands, 34 countries where the daughters of men are not granted equal inheritance rights, and 15 countries where women do not have equal ownership to land as men.  

When these countries will allow their women to have equal land ownership rights will be dependant on how quickly they progress with the global feminist movement.  

The World Bank and other various humanitarian organizations are advocating for the adoption of land ownership rights for women around the globe and are giving incentives to underdeveloped countries to follow suit with this humanitarian practice.

About THE AUTHOR

Brittany Melling

Brittany Melling

We loved family’s outdoor adventures so much we started a land business just to help others buy their own land. We’ve sold to dozens of people from ATV weekend warriors to camping enthusiasts to retired truck drivers. Our inventory spans five western states. We’ve been trained by experience, land acquisition courses, and hundreds of hours meeting with county assessors and clerks, zoning officials, realtors, and land investors. We’ve answered hundreds of questions from people regarding the buying and use of land.

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