There are few industries remaining today that have not seen a drastic change in the role that women play, and real estate is certainly not immune to these changes. Women have long been involved in the history of real estate. In fact, the involvement of women in the industry can be traced back to its inception in 1794 and its further establishment as a legitimate business in the 1840s.
In the early days of real estate, women were commonly seen in administrative and supportive roles. However, by the 1880s there was already a noticeable shift with more women moving into the roles of agents and brokers (albeit at a rather slow rate. )
When the National Association of Realtors (NAR) was founded in 1908, the membership was 100% male. In fact, the original charter stated that the purpose of the trade organization was to “unite the real estate men of America.”
Despite this, the organization has never had restrictive gender or racial requirements for membership. Although, NAR did not restrict its membership based on gender or race, many local boards did. Just like today, one of the primary requirements for membership to NAR was acceptance as a member of a local real estate board. At the local level boards decided who was qualified and who was not, restricting access to many women and people of color. Many local boards, particularly older, well-established boards and those in major cities, did explicitly ban women from membership in their bylaws, which effectively prevented them from becoming members of NAR.
As new local boards emerged, so emerged many qualified women. Newly established boards and those in suburbs and rural areas often didn’t have oppressive and outdated restrictions, as they needed all the members they could get. Additionally, In the 1920s, a number of local real estate boards established special women’s divisions catering to female brokers .
These early pioneering real estate women often came from one of several groups :
- They were daughters or widows of real estate men.
- They were part of a family team ( mother-son or husband-wife )
- Or, they were women in supporting positions who were pressed into service during an emergency, and learned to sell.
Unfortunately, The Great Depression halted women’s progress in the industry for a decade. There are accounts that estimate about two-thirds of female brokers left the field between 1930 and 1940.
However, in the 1940s, women reemerged as a guiding force in the real estate industry. Women held fast to the ideal that only women had the “established role as guardians of the virtue of the republic through protection of the homes,” thus justifying their claim as home sellers. When many women returned to domestic work after the end of WWII, women in the real estate industry held onto their professional positions post-World War II. Additionally, during this period, women began taking advantage of the influx of new single family homes being built in the suburbs and the corresponding increase in homeownership following the establishment of VA-loans. (Sadly, women real estate agents were also a major lobbying driving force against widespread public housing!)
Post WWII, Despite the decades of advancement in the real estate industry , women primarily were found in the ranks of sales agents, not brokers as much, and since NAR’s membership base was restricted to brokers, women remained in the minority for decades. NAR’s first member profile survey was conducted in 1949, which found that 98% of members were men.
In the 60s, and 70s – as women in the workplace gained political clout through the women’s liberation movement, they also gained more opportunities in real estate.
In 1973, the situation rapidly began to change when NAR opened up membership to sales agents (REALTOR-Associates), many of whom were women. At the end of 1973, NAR had 118,000 members, with women making up roughly 17%. By the end of 1975, NAR had ballooned to 435,500 members, and women made up nearly a third of its total membership. Women surpassed men as a percentage of total membership three years later, in 1978.
In 1996, four years after the induction of NAR’s first female president – Dorcas Helfant, women represented the majority of broker licensees for the first time.
Sources: Progress of Women in Real Estate, 50th Anniversary,