Economic Development and Women's Property Rights

August 9, 2001

A mere century and a half ago, married women had no property rights and could not enter contractual agreements. If she worked outside the home -- a rarity -- her husband legally owned all her wages and was responsible for supporting her.

But starting around 1850, states began passing "married women's property acts" -- which gave wives full property rights. By 1920, all but four states -- Arizona, Florida, Louisiana and New Mexico -- had changed their laws.

Fordham University economist Rick Geddes and Montana State University economist Dean Lueck examine the economic reasons for that change in a forthcoming article in the American Economic Review.

Here are some of their observations:

  • Women gained property rights as economic development and urbanization increased opportunities for them to work outside the home.
  • The rights of women expanded along with city populations, schooling and per capita wealth -- with a 1 percent increase in city population, for instance, increasing the probability that a state would pass a married women's property act by 1.6 percent.
  • States appeared to reach a tipping point: once per capita wealth exceeded $24,000 (1982 dollars), a quarter (23 percent) of a state's population lived in cities over 100,000, and three-quarters (73 percent) of women received schooling, women's property rights almost always followed.

As wives made economic gains, the authors note, husbands gained from the women's increasing contribution to family wealth.

Source: Virginia Postrel (Reason magazine), "Economic Scene: It Was Not So Long Ago that Married Women Had No Property Rights," New York Times, August 9, 2001.

 

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