At 25 years old, Oklahoma City-native Terry Neese wanted to buy a building to expand her small but booming staffing business.
But this was 1976, and Neese was married. When she went to the bank to take out a loan to buy the building, she was turned down: She needed her husband to cosign.
“I was furious,” said Neese. “There were very few women business owners in Oklahoma. I had no clue I didn’t have this right until I tried to take out a loan for that building.”
The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 18 reignited a conversation about women’s rights, including financial ones which modern Western women hardly question. Ginsburg, who spent much of her early career championing women’s rights, paved the way for the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, which banned discrimination against an applicant based on gender, race or religion.
And on Oct. 26, Amy Coney Barrett took the feminist icon’s place on the Supreme Court—a move many women strongly protested since President Donald Trump announced her nomination in late September. Now, with potential rollbacks looming, experts recall the decades of work to secure landmark women’s rights.
“The Supreme Court now has a great deal of power to say whether access to safe legal abortion or safe legal contraception is or is not a right protected by the Constitution. If this is rolled back, any law that protects women can be rolled back,” said Lucinda Finley, an attorney specializing in women’s and reproductive rights. “What if an employer or bank says: ‘My religion says women should stay home and raise kids; they shouldn’t run businesses. So I’m not going to lend money to women’?”
This year’s events have also drawn broader attention to women’s rights and activism throughout history, with Kamala Harris becoming the first Black, female vice president after much women-led activism to get her there, paired with the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, in which white women won the right to vote. All this has spurred a slate of activism to promote the largely under-taught history of women’s suffrage and women’s history—which historians and education experts urge is essential for shaping a progressive view of women in society now and in the future.
How women earned right to take out bank loans in their own name
Back in the ‘70s, Neese wasn’t a political lobbyist yet, and didn’t know that a state law required her, a married woman, to get her husband to cosign for a bank loan. Single women could use any male relative—even a son. And many women today don’t know that, up until the surprisingly recent year of 1988, they wouldn’t have been able to either.
“1988 was not that long ago,” Neese said. “When I say this to people in speeches or at conferences they are like: ‘What? Women couldn’t borrow money?’”
In 1972, there were only 402,000 women-owned businesses nationwide, generating $8.1 billion annually. Today, women own 12.3 million businesses in the U.S.—an increase of nearly 3,000% since the ‘70s—and contribute $1.8 trillion to the U.S economy per year, according to a report by American Express.
“These stats are incredibly important,” Neese said. “We jumped significantly as soon as our access to capital was actually secured.”
Neese eventually worked out a deal with a landlord to rent space for her business in the building. But the situation planted a seed for what would become her lifetime of work.
In 1986, The Small Business Administration released a study downplaying women’s contribution to the economy, encouraging the public perception that most women-owned businesses were unserious—sewing, knitting and jewelry-making.
Determined to address barriers to women’s enterprise development and abolish the male cosigner law, Neese promptly brought together women business owners to start the Oklahoma City chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO).
“I personally had a staffing firm for 11 years that was doing very, very well,” Neese said. “And I knew a lot of other women in the United States that were doing the same thing.”
NAWBO asked women around the country to testify to Congress, an attempt to document the hurdles women faced when trying to borrow money and start businesses. Neese recalled how one businesswoman said she went to the bank to borrow money and had to take her son to sign the paperwork. He was 17.
After the hearings, then-U.S. Rep. John LaFalce (D-N.Y.) authored the landmark legislation that became known as the Women Business Ownership Act of 1988, granting women the right to take out bank loans in their own name.
Energized by the work and inspired to take it further, Neese founded the Institute of Economic Empowerment for Women (IEEW), in partnership with the University of Oklahoma.
Fighting for economic empowerment for women worldwide
While an immediately popular program among American women, she knew she needed to expand internationally, specifically to the Middle East, where the situation with women’s access to capital was, of course, more dire.
“There is literally a saying in our language that daughters are someone else’s belonging,” said Manizha Wafeq, a Kabul, Afghanistan native who has worked with IEEW since 2008. “A daughter will become someone else’s wife, someone else’s bride. So families don’t invest in their daughters and they go from being their family’s servant to their husband’s family’s servant.”
Wafeq grew up in a progressive family in Kabul, the nation’s capital. Her parents, and especially her father, always encouraged higher education and career pursuits, so she went on to university and then to get a master’s degree, and quickly entered the workforce.
“I never thought of myself any less than a man,” Wafeq reflected. “I was very privileged.”
But Wafeq knows her story is far from common. In the aftershocks of the deeply misogynistic Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001, discrimination in the business world runs rampant against Afghan women, who still make up only 20% of the labor force.
“In looking at why women are so inferior to men in Afghanistan, I realized one of the main issues was financial dependence,” she said.
In 2006, Neese expanded IEEW to Afghanistan through the initiative Peace Through Business to help oppressed women who had been affected by the Taliban to start new businesses or reopen ones that had been shuttered. Wafeq was among the first class of women to graduate the program, and soon became the program’s Afghanistan-based ambassador.
Influenced by Neese to become involved politically, Wafeq then went on to start a non-profit of her own based out of Kabul called Women Chamber of Congress, which provides gender training to government officials, who are primarily men.
“[Neese] always said ‘If you are running a business and you’re not involved with politics, then politics will run your business,’” Wafeq recalled.
Along with providing translation services and computer training for students in the Peace Through Business program, Wafeq says she pushes the institute to focus recruitment in the country’s provinces rather than its cities.
“Exposure is so important for everyone, but especially for provincial women,” Wafeq said. “They remain in their homes, in their villages. they are not aware of what is happening in the world.”
More than reforming specific laws or policies, Wafeq is passionate about changing mindsets. Some of this happens naturally, she says, when women travel to the U.S. for the six weeks of training that kicks off the Peace Through Business’s entrepreneurship program.
“I want women to understand their potentials are not naturally less than men. It’s because of the way they were brought up,” Wafeq said. “This really is a movement, not a one-time event or initiative. The work is never ending.”
And though the landscape is more progressive in the U.S., this work is never ending there too. Finley, the women’s rights attorney emphasizes a particularly troubling reality about the current Supreme Court climate: Though women’s access to abortion and contraception are the most immediate targets, future rulings could pave the way for further control on the premise of morals or religion.
“It’s important for people to understand that it’s a matter of constitutional law. We tend to think of the Constitution as doctrine,” Finley said. “The fact that we are discussing overruling it is quite troubling. There are employers out there who would fire women for getting pregnant outside of wedlock if the law said their religious liberties allowed them to do that.”
Terry Neese never did buy that building for her business, even after she helped pass the law that would allow her and other women to make such a purchase. Her work quickly expanded far beyond it, but she stayed true to her original cause that motivated her to start a staffing business serving mostly women in her early 20s: getting women employed and paid.
“Everyone has ideas and dreams. You’re 19 years old. What do you want to do?” Neese said. “You can go do anything.”
After establishing the Afghanistan-based program, Neese expanded Peace Through Business to Rwanda, aiding women affected by the genocide to achieve financial freedom. Over 600 women business owners have graduated from IEEW’s programs, who then went on to employ 16,000 other women.
Yet even in the U.S., after generations of diligent advocacy, gender discrepancies still exist when it comes to leadership and money. Women make up less than 25% of Congress and only 7.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs in America. And still, over half a century after the Supreme Court passed the Equal Pay Act, women on average make only 82 cents on the dollar compared with white men.
Despite the gains since her early years fighting Congress in the U.S. and internationally, Neese knows much work remains:
“I’m still advocating and working every day to make sure women are doing whatever we want in this country.”
This article is part of a reporting effort by the GroundTruth Project on voting rights in America, with support from the Jesse and Betsy Fink Charitable Fund, the Solutions Journalism Network and the MacArthur Foundation.
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