Abstract: Women's Rights and Women's Labor: Married Women's Property Laws and Labor Force Participation, 1860-1900

Evan Roberts


Between 1860 and 1910, wives' rights to own property, retain their own earnings, and do business on their own account, separate from their husbands, were extended throughout most American states. I use census data to estimate the effects of changes in property laws on married women's gainful employment. Individual-level census data controls for individual and family factors that affect wives' decisions to work, while differences in the timing of legal change across the states permits identification of the effects of legal change. After holding individual and state-specific factors constant, the effects of change in married women's property legislation on married women's labor force participation was trivially small and negative for white women. For black women, initial results suggest that the property laws could have had an effect. Because of the substantial other legal and socio-economic changes affecting the black population at this time, it is not clear that the property laws are the proximate cause of this change. The overall effect of the laws is dominated by the impact for white women, which is zero or slightly negative (the laws decreased participation). Married women's property reform in the late nineteenth century had no substantial effects on labor force participation.