Habito’s mission is to help people find home. We recognise that the legal right to property ownership hasn’t always existed for women in the UK, and continues to be denied to many women internationally. This International Women’s Day let’s reflect on the history, and consider the future, of women’s rights to property.

Women’s rights to property ownership in the UK

The 12th - 19th Century

From the 12th Century until the end of the 19th Century, married women weren’t considered separate legal entities from their husbands thanks to something called coverture. 

This meant that once they were married, women couldn’t do things like own property, sue in court, or make a will. (These financial and legal limitations didn’t apply to widows and single women in the same way.)

From 1870

The Married Women’s Property Act was passed in 1870. This allowed wages earned by a woman, as well as any gifts or inheritance she received after marriage, to be treated as her own individual property rather than her husband's by default. 

But the law was full of loopholes. For example, it didn’t apply to property she owned before marriage. This meant that once a woman got married, her husband took full control over the assets she’d owned prior.

From 1882

In 1882, after more brave and tireless campaigning, this law was extended to allow married women to keep control of any property they owned before entering the marriage.

But what about mortgages?

After the Sex Discrimination Act was passed in 1975, banks - as well as employers and other institutions - were legally required to treat women and men equally. 

From this point, a woman could open a bank account in her own name and apply for a mortgage without facing discrimination, in theory. In reality, it wasn’t until the late 70s when the practice of demanding a male guarantor on a woman’s mortgage application died out in the UK.

Fast forward to 2022

Things are better, but women still face obstacles - like the gender pay gap - when trying to get on the housing ladder. 

Here at Habito, we’ve seen the number of mortgage applications with female primary (or sole) applicants increase from 29% in 2017, to 33% in 2021. Not a huge increase, but there has only been 2.8 per cent growth in female mortgage holders over the past decade.

That’s probably because women need an average of twelve times their annual salary to be able to buy a home in England, while men need just over eight times.

Women’s rights to property ownership globally

The harsh reality

In more than 30 countries, women and girls do not have the same rights to own and inherit land as men and boys. And in dozens of other countries, despite laws stating that they can, customs undermine these rights entirely. 

Why it matters

Research by Landesa in 2016 highlights the reasons why land ownership for women is vital:

  • Earnings: Women with property and inheritance rights earn up to 3.8 times more than those without
  • Education: Families where women own land dedicate more money to education
  • Savings: Women save up to 35% more where they have rights to property and inheritance
  • Health: Children whose mothers own land are 33% less likely to be severely underweight and up to 10% less likely to fall sick
  • Safety: Women who own land are 8 times less likely to experience domestic violence

Good work being done

The Stand For Her Land Campaign is working on bridging the gap between the standards that are in place to protect women’s rights to land, and the reality. 

“Land is the foundation for shelter, livelihood, and climate resilience. Land is fundamental for survival… We cannot achieve gender equality without women’s equal rights to and control over the world’s most elemental resources: land and property. Women’s land rights are fundamental human rights.”

Read more about their brilliant work here.

The future

Owning property isn’t just a financial milestone - finding home for women means health, savings, safety and education for their children. There’s work to do to ensure that all women have equal access and the opportunity to build equity in the same way as men.