Fatal Attraction: The Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the Interminable Link Between Gender, Debt, and Risk

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) of 1974 was the first federal law to prohibit lending discrimination on the basis of sex or marital status. Prior to the ECOA’s passage, creditors could deny a woman simply for being a woman. Creditors claimed that women were not legally responsible for their debts and too risky because of their childbearing capacity. After the ECOA passed, women gained unprecedented access to credit but were also exposed to the destabilizing force of debt. Scholars have shown that owning one’s risk was fundamental to liberal notions of self-ownership and masculine individualism that structured America’s changing capitalist economy. This trait was inextricably linked with gendered ideologies that shaped perceptions of who was capable of owning and repaying debt. While scholarship on women and credit mainly focuses on the opportunities the ECOA presented, I explore the durability – despite formal legal change – of gendered conceptions of who was worthy of American selfhood and the ways in which women continued to shoulder risks in trying keep their repayment promises. New laws reconfigured deep-rooted beliefs about women’s ability to manage the risk associated with debt, but enduring views about women’s financial dependency entangled them with debt and risk. The ECOA ensured that more women co-signed for mortgages and held credit cards, but also went bankrupt. The numbers of women declaring bankruptcy increased by 500% by the end of the twentieth century. The Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978 was not regarded as a feminist victory. It did, however, affirm women’s legal personhood by permitting wives to file separately and by providing debtor forgiveness through a system historically designed for white men. Through analyzing the gendered contradictions of indebtedness in America’s emerging neoliberal economy, I argue that perceptions of women debtors remained tethered to underlying assumptions about women’s capacity to manage risk.