The Gains from Self-Ownership and the Expansion of Women's Rights
71 Pages Posted: 13 Dec 2000
Date Written: August 2000
At the time of the American Revolution under the common law doctrine of coverture, women were essentially the property of men, either their fathers' or husbands'. They could not vote, and with few exceptions, women could not own property, enter contract or join non-religious social and professional organizations. Nearly all of the restrictions on women common in 1776 no longer exist. We use a property rights model to explain this dramatic transformation in legal and social institutions. We characterize this as a shift from a regime in which men controlled women and owned their output to a regime in which women own themselves and their output and contract freely with others. In particular, the model shows how greater gains from human capital investment, as markets expand, increases the gains from self-ownership. Using unique data sets on state laws and legal history, we empirically examine several important changes in women's rights, across jurisdictions and over time, including the exceptional cases of women's rights under coverture and the adoption of the married women's property acts during the last half of the 19th century. Our evidence indicates that women's rights expand when the gains from human capital investment are high and are thus often associated with large, specialized markets. Using a panel of state data from 1850-1920, we find that states with a greater fraction of city dwellers, greater per capita wealth, and greater fraction of literate or schooled females were more likely to enact laws expanding women's rights.
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