In March 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John Adams, who was in Philadelphia, Pa., helping to craft a constitution for the fledgling nation. In her letter, Abigail urged John to give women the rights that men held as God-given: "I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors," she implored. Women didn't gain suffrage for another 144 years, and it took even longer for them to become economically independent from their husbands. Laws allowing white widows to inherit property were first instituted in 1839 in Mississippi to allow them to inherit slaves.
For black women, the struggle for equality had a sharper edge. They first had to gain the right to be seen as human.
Biddy Mason was born in 1818, probably in Georgia. Mason was a wedding gift to Mississippi plantation owner Robert Marion Smith when she was 18. She was a skilled midwife and cook. The Smiths moved to Salt Lake City in 1848, in a caravan of 56 white Mormon converts and 34 slaves, including Mason and her three daughters, likely all fathered by Smith, quadrupling his property. Ellen was 10, Ann, 4, and Harriet was barely 6 weeks old. During the seven-month, 2,000-mile journey, Mason carried her nursing baby and walked with Ellen and Ann behind the wagons carrying Smith and his white family, and behind the caravan's livestock with the rest of the slaves. They walked again in 1851 to California, a free state. There, Smith's slaves sued for freedom, winning it in 1856.
At 34, Biddy Mason was no longer property. Ten years later, she was the first black woman to purchase land in Los Angeles. Mason leveraged her talents and real estate into a sizable fortune by the time she died in 1891.
"Wherever there is a racial issue, there's a gender issue," said Anita Hill, keynote speaker at the Mississippi Women's Economic Security Policy Summit, held Oct. 10. Hill told Abigail and Biddy's stories to illustrate that point.
Hill came to national attention in 1991 when she accused her former supervisor, Clarence Thomas (then a U.S. Supreme Court nominee), of sexual harassment. Today, Hill is a professor at Brandeis University's Heller School for Social Policy and Management. Her 2011 book, "Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home," focuses on how the sub-prime mortgage and housing crises disproportionately affected women—particularly African American women.
Prior to the crises, women were the largest growth market for home sales in the U.S., Hill said. Unscrupulous lenders targeted low-income people, including people of color and women, for zero-down, high-interest and high-risk mortgages. The Great Recession wiped out billions in property assets, hitting women particularly hard.
"Even when controlling for credit score, income, and wealth, women are 30 percent more likely than their male peers to own a risky mortgage, and single black women are 259 times more likely than white men with the same financial characteristics to have a risky subprime loan" reported the Women's Media Center in 2014. "... Single women, of all ages, were ideal targets for risky loans because they are often the heads of households in the neighborhoods where subprime loans were heavily marketed."
Black single women are three time more likely to be heads of households than single white women and twice as likely than Hispanics. The continuing racial and gender inequalities in lending means that women of color are also more likely to be caught in foreclosures. African American women are 256 percent more likely than white men to receive subprime loans, and upper-income black women are nearly five times more likely than white men to have high-cost mortgages, reported the National Council of Jewish Women this year in "Losing Ground: Women and the Foreclosure Crises."
Home ownership is a primary driver of household wealth, and Hill cited Pew Research showing that white families now have 13 times the wealth of black families. "All the gains that had been made in communities of color in two-and-a-half decades were lost in the financial crisis," she said.
Hill evoked the sitcom "The Jeffersons" when she urged women to live and work within their communities even as they achieve a measure of success. "We need to have a different vision" for economic equality than "Moving On Up" and out, she said. Women's success must extend to bringing others along. To be safe, women must achieve economic security. Questions of safety, whether that means equal pay, raising healthy children or surviving an abusive relationship, are wrapped up in economic and property issues. With "the ladies" still several steps behind the men economically, Abigail and Biddy are surely restless in their graves.
Ronni Mott is a freelance writer and editor, and an experienced yoga teacher. She is dedicated to social justice and speaking truth to power.