women legal status over time


Ancient Egypt

3100 BCE - 30 BCE

Women hold equal financial rights with men. As scholar Janet Johnson writes, “Egyptian women were able to acquire, to own, and to dispose of property (both real and personal) in their own name. They could enter into contracts in their own name; they could initiate civil court cases and could, likewise, be sued; they could serve as witnesses in court cases; they could serve on juries; and they could witness legal documents.”

Biblical Era

Approx. 1800 bc

Under Jewish law, women have the right to own property and sue others in court without a man representing them. Wives can’t inherit directly from their husbands – unless it is a gift or they have no children – but daughters can inherit if they don’t have brothers. The Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Hebrew Bible, lays down an early law of personal finance: “If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter.” Sons who inherit are expected to use the estate to support the women in the family.

Ancient Greece

776 BCE - 146 BCE

Women’s financial rights are constrained compared to earlier societies. Women are not allowed to inherit property or take a case to court unless a male guardian is in charge. Women can, however, trade and engage in industry, such as tavern-keeping, although work in the classical watering hole is reserved for the lower classes.

Ancient Rome

753 BCE - 476 CE

The pendulum swings back as freeborn Roman women are allowed to divorce, own property and inherit. Divorce is easy to get – presaging the Christian opposition to splitting up marriages – but the husband has the legal right to keep the children.

The Middle East

600 - 2017

Islam is founded in Arabia and allows women the right to inherit estates, own property and initiate divorce. As in Jewish law, when a parent dies the eldest son receives a double share of the inheritance. Men can inherit half their wives’ estates, unless they have a child, in which case men only get 25% of the estate.


1100 - 1800

English common law, a combination of Anglo-Saxon and Norman traditions, leads to the creation of coverture, which is the belief that married men and women are one financial entity. As such, married women cannot own property, run taverns or stores or sue in court. Over time, coverture is corrupted into the view that women are property of their husbands.



New York becomes the first US state to require a woman’s consent if her husband tries to sell property that she brought to a marriage. The act also required the judge to meet privately with the woman to reassure himself that the signature wasn’t forged or her consent coerced.



France grants women the right to own bank accounts; five years later, the right is extended to married women, who are allowed to open accounts without their husbands’ permission. The US does not follow suit until the 196os, and the UK lags until 1975.



India bans dowries for women before marriage and allows women to sue if her husband’s family harass her for the money. The anti-dowry law goes largely ignored.



Irish women are finally able to own their own homes outright.