The fight for women's rights today often centers on achieving social and political equality. However, women have fought just as hard throughout our country's history to achieve economic equality.
Equal financial rights for women have been a cornerstone of efforts to advance women's economic empowerment. As we celebrate Women's History Month, it's important to reflect on this struggle, how far we've come, and the progress we still have to make. The story of Rebecca Sutton, Eastern Bank's first customer, exemplifies our country's trajectory toward greater economic equality for all women.
Eastern Bank's First Trailblazing Customer
Eastern Bank has been supporting women for over 200 years, and it all started in 1818 with its first customer, Rebecca Sutton.
At the time, women didn't have voting rights, and they lost any semblance of independence once they got married, effectively becoming their husband's property. It was during this period, when only the wealthy had access to banks, that the Institution for Savings—known today as Eastern Bank—became a welcoming place for a range of borrowers in the Salem area to handle their banking needs.
On April 15, 1818, Rebecca Sutton, a recent widow, had her late husband's attorney make an initial $100 deposit for her at the bank. Though Sutton could open an account at the Institution for Savings, laws during that time prohibited women from going into a bank to conduct financial transactions themselves, which is why the attorney performed the transaction on her behalf.
Over two centuries later, Eastern Bank continues to expand its tradition of advancing women's economic empowerment. In 2018 — the 200th anniversary of Sutton's first transaction — Eastern created an "Advancing Women" targeted grant in honor of Sutton that has awarded over $2.2 million to charitable organizations in New England that focus on issues which disproportionately impact women and girls, such as domestic violence, health care, and affordable child care.
Through its charitable initiatives, Eastern Bank is advancing women's economic progress, building on years of previous legislative and social justice efforts.
Advancing Women's Financial Rights
Eastern Bank's success in advancing women's economic progress wouldn't be possible today without the fight women have waged over centuries to promote economic equality.
In 1862, nearly 50 years after Sutton's first transaction, California granted women the right to maintain control over the money deposited in their account. During that same year, the Homestead Act gave unmarried and widowed women the right to own property in their own names. In 1963, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, which was designed to close the gender pay gap — though women today still only earn 82 cents for every dollar a man makes on average, according to the Center for American Progress. In 1974, Congress passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which prohibited credit discrimination on the basis of age, color, gender, marital status, national origin, race, religion, sex, and whether a person is receiving public assistance. Under the law, women were finally granted the right to open a credit card in their own name.
In the last two decades, we've seen more progress in the form of laws like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which built on the Equal Pay Act and overturned a Supreme Court ruling that put a time limit on when an employee could file an employment discrimination complaint based on pay. The law benefits all Americans, but it particularly benefits women, who are often disproportionately affected by wage discrimination.
All of this legislation has given women more ownership over their financial futures, but with a persistent pay gap, a caregiving crisis that disproportionately affects women, and workplace discrimination making it more difficult for working mothers and caregivers to advance their careers, it is clear that our country can do even more to accelerate women's economic progress.
How to Support Women's Economic Empowerment This Women's History Month (and Beyond)
When you support women, you also uplift their communities. Though the law and public sentiment have evolved to help women achieve more financial independence, society still has work to do.
Continued progress will require contributions from every one of us. Like Eastern Bank, you can donate your time, resources, or skills to charitable organizations that support women-focused issues. For instance, if there are women or young girls in your community who could benefit from more financial knowledge, you could use what you know to build their financial literacy or direct them to online resources that can do so.
If you're in a leadership role at an organization or company, determine how you can build a more inclusive pipeline and culture. Look at your retention and recruitment programs and ask current employees and other seniors leaders for their input on how you can recruit and retain more women in rank-and-file positions, middle management, and senior leadership roles.
These efforts take time and commitment, but they are necessary to ensure there's a level playing field for everyone, regardless of their gender or sex.