Abstract: "Entitled to her separate earnings . . . and equally liable to maintain her family": British Married Women's Property Rights and the Labor Force Participation of Married Women Shopkeepers, 1851-1901

Mary Beth Combs


Nineteenth-century Britain witnessed a natural experiment with potential to change the lives of women: the 1870 Married Women's Property Act. The Act gave any woman married after 1870 the right to own and control certain forms of property, as well as any earnings from a business carried on separately from her husband. The Act, therefore, provided an incentive for a woman to run her own business, rather than work in the business carried on by her husband. For these and other reasons, contemporary reformers hailed the Act as a major achievement of the women's movement; however, there still exists a debate among modern scholars about whether women benefited from the Act. Feminist historians have long regarded the Act as a milestone in the emancipation of women. A few argue that the Act deserves a place "in the pantheon of historical events" and praise its impact on the lives of women. Others note, however, that even after the Act other factors in combination with the law likely limited the ability of women to control their economic lives on an equal footing with men. My previous research has shown that the 1870 Act affected the wealth-holding of women, as well as the distribution of resources within the household. This study examines data on the labor force participation rates of married women shopkeepers to determine whether the Act or other factors affected the decision to own and run a small shop.