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Single Motherhood and the Abolition of Coverture in the United States

Listed author(s):
  • Hazem Alshaikhmubarak
  • R. Richard Geddes
  • Shoshana Amyra Grossbard

Under the common-law system of coverture in the United States, a married woman relinquished control of property and wages to her husband. Many U.S. states passed acts between 1850 and 1920 that expanded a married woman’s right to keep her market earnings and to own separate property. The former were called married women’s earnings acts (MWEAs) and the latter married women’s property acts (MWPAs). Scholarly interest in the acts’ effects is growing. Researchers have examined how the acts affected outcomes such as women's wealth-holding and educational attainment. The acts' impact on women’s non-marital birth decisions remains unexamined, however. We postulate that the acts caused women to anticipate greater benefits from having children within rather than outside of marriage. We thus expect passage of MWPAs and MWEAs to reduce the likelihood that single women become mothers of young children. We use probit regression to analyze individual data from the U.S. Census for the years 1860 to 1920. We find that the property acts in fact reduced the likelihood that single women have young children. We also find that the “de-coverture” acts’ effects were stronger for literate women, U.S.-born women, in states with higher female labor-force participation, and in more rural states, consistent with predictions.

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File URL: http://www.cesifo-group.de/portal/page/portal/DocBase_Content/WP/WP-CESifo_Working_Papers/wp-cesifo-2017/wp-cesifo-2017-05/cesifo1_wp6471.pdf
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Paper provided by CESifo Group Munich in its series CESifo Working Paper Series with number 6471.

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Date of creation: 2017
Handle: RePEc:ces:ceswps:_6471
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  1. Hamilton, Gillian, 1999. "Property Rights and Transaction Costs in Marriage: Evidence from Prenuptial Contracts," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 59(01), pages 68-103, March.
  2. Rick Geddes & Dean Lueck, 2002. "The Gains From Self-Ownership and the Expansion of Women's Rights," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 92(4), pages 1079-1092, September.
  3. Carmen Diana Deere & Cheryl Doss, 2006. "The Gender Asset Gap: What Do We Know And Why Does It Matter?," Feminist Economics, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 12(1-2), pages 1-50.
  4. Ekert-Jaffe, Olivia & Grossbard, Shoshana, 2008. "Does community property discourage unpartnered births?," European Journal of Political Economy, Elsevier, vol. 24(1), pages 25-40, March.
  5. Barzel,Yoram, 1997. "Economic Analysis of Property Rights," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521597135, September.
  6. Grossbard-Shechtman, Amyra, 1986. "Economic behavior, marriage and fertility : Two lessons from polygyny," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 7(4), pages 415-424, December.
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