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It’s the 40th anniversary of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974. Signed into law on October 28 of that year, it included provisions to make sure women could not be denied credit just because of their gender, or because they were married.

Prior to enactment of this law, single women had more trouble obtaining credit than single men, creditors generally required a woman to reapply for credit in her husband’s name when she married,  and creditors were often unwilling to extend credit to a married woman or take into account a woman’s income when a married couple applied for credit.  Women who divorced or were widowed found it difficult to re-establish credit, and women who were separated had a particularly difficult time. Credit discrimination placed a heavy burden on women who headed single-parent families, including the 27% of women heading household who were African American.

ProQuest Congressional Hearings Digital Collection includes a series of hearings held in June 1974 before the House Committee on Banking and Currency Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs that provide insight into the situation.

Charles T. Russell, vice president of National BankAmerica, Inc., expressed the opinion that credit practices such as denying credit to a married woman in her own first name or denying credit to a newly divorced woman or disregarding a married woman’s income were not malicious, but rather reflected longstanding customs and attitudes.

Some of the discriminatory practices seem unusual, to say the least, when measured by the standards of today. A 1973 study by the Missouri Commission on the Status of Women found that:

No doubt, various types of state laws regarding women’s rights influenced the behavior of lenders. Most states had laws upholding a woman’s rights to her own earnings, but many states placed that right in the context that it should not subvert the traditional obligation of the husband to provide necessities for his wife.

The testimony of Margaret J. Gates, the co-director of the Center for Women’s Policy Studies, specifically addressed the right of women to give up certain legal protections and illustrates how complicated this issue could become.  Gates described a situation where a woman might go into a retail store and want to open credit in her own name, but be turned down because state law required her husband to provide her with all the things she might want to buy in that store. Gates argued that the woman should be able to state on the credit application that she waived her right to have her husband pay for things because she wanted credit in her own name.

“Otherwise,” Gates testified, “she may be denied credit because of state laws that purport to be protecting women—and which in some instances actually do—becoming the real obstacle to women who are financially independent. You see, any woman who would go to the store and ask for credit and expect to get it would have to be economically independent and able to pay or they would not give it to her, not because she was married, but because she was just economically not qualified to have the credit. So why should she be deprived of the credit because the State is giving her this protection, which in this instance she does not want?”

ProQuest Congressional Digital Hearings Digital Collection presents differing viewpoints throughout the history of the struggle of American women for equal rights.

In addition to ProQuest Congressional, GenderWatch™ includes dissertations and theses, and articles from magazines, newspapers, and trade journals that consider the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. ProQuest History Vault Women’s Rights Collection also contains records of the Women’s Action Alliance and the Citizen’s Advisory Council on the Status of Women regarding equal credit opportunity.

And, The Vogue Archive covers credit bias in this article from 1974 which references an ad in The New York Times (accessible via ProQuest Historical Newspapers™).

Explore how women have inspired change during Women’s History Month.

Librarians: sign up for free trials of ProQuest Congressional Hearings Digital Collection, History Vault Women’s Rights Collection, GenderWatch™, The Vogue Archive, ProQuest Historical Newspapers™, and more to get the big picture on the fight for equality throughout the 20th century.

14 Mar 2014

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