Would Jane Austen Be on eHarmony? How Changes in Women's Legal Status Have Influenced the Choice of a Spouse

38 Pages Posted: 4 Jun 2016 Last revised: 10 Sep 2017

See all articles by Kathleen Knudsen

Kathleen Knudsen

Regent University - School of Law

Date Written: June 2, 2016


“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” ― Jane Austen.

Jane Austen’s beloved novel Pride and Prejudice opens with the news that Mr. Bingley, “a young man of large fortune from the north of England,” has let Netherfield Park. According to local gossip, Mr. Bingley is “quite young, wonderfully handsome, extremely agreeable, and, to crown the whole, he meant to be at the next assembly with a large party.” Obsessed with finding spouses for her daughters, Mrs. Bennet’s joy in hearing news of wealthy, handsome Mr. Bingley’s imminent move to Netherfield Park may only be imagined. Of course, nothing goes quite as Mrs. Bennet imagines. While most women today do not see themselves as a Mrs. Bennet who goes hysterical when a new marriage prospect moves into town, do many women nonetheless still, at least initially, evaluate the Mr. Bingleys of life by their age, looks, wealth, and personality?

Historically, restrictive property laws such as primogeniture and coverture prevented married women from owning or inheriting property. With limited employment and educational opportunities, marriage was every girl’s preeminent goal. Potential suitors were critically evaluated for their wealth, good looks, and social status — just ask Mrs. Bennet. By contrast, today women may independently own property, enter into contracts, earn advanced degrees, and pursue nearly limitless career options. Since New York authorized the Married Women’s Property Act of 1848, the law has continuously expanded women’s legal rights and opportunities. Women now have vast educational opportunities, with young women today more likely to earn an undergraduate and more likely to earn a graduate degree than their male counterparts. As a practical outcome, these educational attainments result in higher earnings than women have ever enjoyed before.

Yet, despite these developments, could it be that the modern online dating trend indicates millions of women still evaluate suitors based on a remarkably similar criteria to that used generations ago, using a computer to filter matches based on evaluators such as wealth, social status, looks, and education? Since Match.com launched in 1995 as the first internet dating website, searching for spouses online has rapidly proliferated. Today, over 91 million people around the world use such websites, spending nearly $1.75 billion annually. Spousal matching is based on objective factors, with users inputting a list of what they are seeking in a spouse, such as age, distance, height, body type, education, job status, relationship status, religious background, and ethnicity. A computer algorithm then begins the matchmaking process. Statistics show that women “click” more on men with a higher income and it is axiomatic that better physical looks engender more responses for all users. This leaves the perplexing question: if women are still, at least initially, seeking the same things in a man that they have for generations — such as wealth, good looks, and social status — have the changes in women’s legal status and economic opportunities actually changed the spousal selection process or have we functionally returned to arranged marriage, only now arranged by computer algorithms instead of the village matchmaker?

This Article suggests that women’s dramatic change in legal status has not changed the criteria for initially evaluating a potential spouse but it may have fundamentally changed the reasons for marriage. Part I traces the changes in a women’s legal and economic status throughout the last two centuries. Part II explores the historic changes in spousal selection from arranged marriage to online dating. Finally, Part III analyzes how a women’s reason for marriage has changed when her initial filtering criteria for a spouse remains the same. Part III concludes that while once women married for economic necessity, women today marry instead in an effort to find happiness. And for Jane Austen, marrying for happiness would probably make a lot of sense — after all, she turned down Mr. Harris Bigg-Wither because she did not think that they would be happy together. Would she be on eHarmony today?

Keywords: women; marriage; money; economics; on line dating; eHarmony

JEL Classification: Z1, Z10, K1, K10, A1, A10, A13, A14, A19, K11, K12, K19, K3, K30

Suggested Citation

Knudsen, Kathleen, Would Jane Austen Be on eHarmony? How Changes in Women's Legal Status Have Influenced the Choice of a Spouse (June 2, 2016). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2788753 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2788753

Kathleen Knudsen (Contact Author)

Regent University - School of Law ( email )

1000 Regent University Drive
Virginia Beach, VA 23464
United States

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