In this series, we examine the financial progress women in the United States have made since the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed, decade by decade. This installment — the second of five — is the progress of the 1980s, the decade in which Congress officially declared March as Women’s History Month.
Women and finance: Strides in continued education
While college was largely a boys’ club in the early 20th century, women turned that around during the 1980s. In 1985, more than half of all college students were women — and they weren’t preparing for the occupation of “wife.” According to the Women’s International Center, women made up 49% of graduates from master’s programs and 33% of graduates with doctorates in the mid-’80s.
As women became more educated, their salaries began to increase in relation to men’s salaries. In fact, the ’80s saw more progress toward income equality than the ’90s. The income gap wasn’t closed during this time — it remains today — but it began shrinking as women attained more high-paying professional and managerial positions. The influence of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 — which allowed women to get a credit card separate from their husbands and ushered in a new level of financial freedom — continued to increase. Women now had more career options and more financial clout.
Women and finance: Strides in political power
Women in the ’80s made huge strides in politics. Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court in 1981. Geraldine Ferraro was the first female vice presidential candidate for a major party in 1984. EMILY’s List was founded in 1985 to help fund campaigns for pro-choice Democratic women. Since it was started nearly 30 years ago, EMILY’s List has helped more than 600 women get elected to federal, state and local offices.
Women and finance: Pop culture
Television in the 1980s showcased women in the workplace supporting their families and themselves, while speaking out for women’s rights and equality. Two TV shows, “Family Ties” and “Designing Women,” weren’t perfectly feminist sitcoms by any means, but they both starred strong, working female leads.
Elyse Keaton on “Family Ties” was a hippie-turned-work-at-home-mom who raised four children with her husband, Steven, over the course of the show. Both worked full time, Steven in an office, and Elyse at home as an architect. The show made it clear that a woman needs an identity outside of her family and the ability to bring in an income in order to thrive in the modern world.
In “Designing Women,” four women worked at a design firm called Sugarbaker Designs. Julia Sugarbaker was an outspoken feminist — her impassioned speeches often stole the show. She largely ran the firm on her own, though she founded it with her sister, Suzanne. Designer and co-worker Mary Jo Shively was a divorced mother of two, who became more assertive as she distanced herself from her failed marriage and became an independent, self-sufficient woman. The show highlighted women who were bringing home the bacon and speaking out for themselves, unapologetically.
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