How Far We've Come with NGS Super - The Married Women's Property Act

Part 1: The Married Women's Property Act of 1884

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Ok, set the scene… What was Oz like in the early 1880s?
We're so glad you asked. At that time, we were a collection of British colonies with a population of around 2.2 million people. The gold rush was going strong, attracting people from all over the world trying their luck in a golden land. But things weren't all sunshine and rainbows… Violence towards the Indigenous people, tensions between wealthy and working-class Aussie, and the non-existent rights of women were festering issues.

So being a woman was challenging?
To put it simply, it could be pretty rough. No voting rights, no right to property ownership, and if you were married, no control over your own wages or ability to claim custody of your children.

So married women had fewer rights than single women?
That's right. It was because of something known as the law of coverture. It basically meant that once you tied the knot, your legal identity was merged with your husband’s. You lost control over important things like owning property, earning wages, being able to sue or be sued, and having legal custody of your children. Example: Charlotte McNeilly from Sydney. In 1877, she attempted to divorce her husband for violent behaviour towards her and their 5 children…

This doesn't sound good…
Not only was she denied a divorce, but the money she had made as a teacher to try and support her family was confiscated and given to her husband.

Did this happen often?
It wasn't uncommon, and remember the gold rush and migration we mentioned? The colonies were dealing with more and more deserted wives who were separated from their families. Jobs available for women were few and far between, and fathers were concerned about wayward sons-in-law taking control of their daughters' inheritance.

So that's where the Married Women's Property Act comes in?
That's right, South Australia was the first, passing its Married Women's Property Act in 1884. It changed the law of coverture so that women could own, sell and buy property in their own name, keep their own wages, enter into contracts, and sue or be sued in court. Over the next 10 years, the remaining colonies passed similar legislation.

Hold your horses because it wasn't a magic wand. Women still couldn't vote, most didn’t have the means to buy a home, and Indigenous women would have to wait decades before they were granted the same legal rights. But it was one of the first big wins for the women's rights movement in our neck of the woods.

Where are we today?

Aussie women are still less likely to own their own homes compared to men. 

Why it's important: when it comes to owning a home, for most people, it will be the biggest asset they have in their lifetime. On average, owning property makes up 56% of a household's wealth. And it's a particularly important asset for people once they retire.

What it means: women have been unable to take advantage of those gains. On that, women over 55yo are the fasting growing group of Aussies facing homelessness.

The numbers:
3.3% - the difference in homeownership between Aussie women and men. That gap grows to more than 7% when looking at investment property ownership. And when it comes to the type of dwellings men and women own - Aussie men are 10% more likely to purchase a stand-alone house.

382% - the amount the Aussie housing prices have grown by over the last 30 years. If women are less likely to own a home, they're unable to take advantage of those gains.

18% - the decline in homeownership rates for those under 35yo in the last 40 years. That's down to home prices growing 3 times faster than wages over the last 4 decades. Not only is there a gender gap when it comes to property ownership, but there’s also a generational one.

Where to from here?

• There's been a big push by federal, state and territory governments in recent years to make housing more affordable for Aussies. Schemes like first homeowners buyer grants have been introduced to help people get their foot in the door.

• And when it comes to buying a home, for single parents that can be particularly difficult. And females make up 80% of single parent households in Australia. Under the Family Home Guarantee, they can purchase a home with as little as a 2% deposit without paying lenders insurance costs - compared to the usual 20%. But there have been calls to do more, particularly for women and families fleeing domestic violence situations.

• And the Albanese Government campaigned last year on a new Help to Buy shared equity scheme. They've also set a target of one million new homes to be built over 5 years, starting in 2024... So watch this space.

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