3 Big Shifts That Transformed Social Security Benefits for Women

Marcia Mantell

What You Need to Know

Women were practically excluded from the original Social Security law enacted in 1935.
In 1939, Congress amended the new law and added benefits for wives, widows and young widows with children.
The next few decades saw more changes, but there was still a lot of lost ground to make up.

As Women’s History Month comes to a close, it’s worth reviewing the important legal changes to Social Security that provided opportunities for women to earn benefits and make up for lost time.

As a baseline, remember that women were all but excluded from the original Social Security law that was enacted in 1935. Eighty-eight years later, we’ve come a long way!

The Social Security law was written to provide selected workers a small income in retirement. In reality, it was a safety net mostly for men. Specifically excluded were workers in domestic service, on farms and as state employees — predominantly jobs held by women. The few that were allowed to work at all, that is.

In the 1930s, women married, raised families and tended the home. Their husband was the wage earner, so Social Security was designed to replace a portion of his income.

1. Amendments of 1939

But what if the working husband died early or left an older woman a widow? Was there to be no retirement security for a wife?

For the original Social Security law to garner the necessary votes in Congress, the bill focused solely on the worker. Soon thereafter, Congress acknowledged they could not turn a blind eye to women and children.

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In 1939, before the first benefit checks were even issued, Congress amended the new law and added benefits for wives, widows and young widows with children.

2. Critical Laws of the 1990s

The 1990s ushered in three critical laws greatly expanding women’s opportunities to keep working and keep benefits:

In 1990, the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act required employers to provide the same benefits for workers over age 65 as younger employees.
In the Unemployment Compensation Amendments of 1992, the rollover rules we know today were implemented. These new rules allowed women who often job-hop to keep their tax-qualified assets protected until retirement.
1993 ushered in the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This became one of the most important job protections for women after giving birth or providing care for a family member. Now, she could come back to her job and not lose her pay rate.

3. Lifting of the Earnings Limit

Over the decades, as jobs slowly opened up for women, they too could earn Social Security benefits. For women who spent 20 years or more at home, there was a lot of lost ground to make up to secure their own retirement benefits. And many wanted — and needed — to work after age 65.