Single Motherhood and the Abolition of Coverture in the United States
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 womanâ€™s right to keep her market earnings and to own separate property. The former were called married womenâ€™s earnings acts (MWEAs) and the latter married womenâ€™s property acts (MWPAs). Scholarly interest in the actsâ€™ effects is growing. Researchers have examined how the acts affected outcomes such as women's wealth-holding and educational attainment. The acts' impact on womenâ€™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" actsâ€™ 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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