It was not so long ago that married women had no property rights

The New York Times, "Economic Scene" , August 09, 2001

When Anne M. Mulcahy became chief executive of Xerox two weeks ago, her promotion occasioned more than the usual notice of a corporate transition. With her ascension, women now make up 1 percent, for a total of five, of the Fortune 500 chief executives. That may not seem like much but only a generation ago, when Ms. Mulcahy was starting her career at Xerox, women were almost completely absent from even the middle ranks of corporate managers.

If those not-so-distant days increasingly seem like ancient history, it is all the more remarkable how much the economic lives of women have changed over a longer span. A mere century and a half ago, a married American woman like Ms. Mulcahy could not normally own and control property or enter contractual agreements. If she worked outside the home, her husband legally owned all her wages. Her husband was obligated to support her.

Rick Geddes, an economist at Fordham University, found this lack of basic property rights hard to imagine. "I thought these laws were changed in the 1600's or something because it seemed so primitive, but the legal change was fairly recent," he said. Starting around 1850, states began passing "married women's property acts," which gave wives full property rights. By 1920, all but four states -- Arizona, Florida, Louisiana and New Mexico -- had changed their laws.

Professor Geddes and Dean Lueck, a professor of economics at Montana State University, examine the economic reasons for that change in a forthcoming article in The American Economic Review. They argue that women gained property rights as economic development and urbanization gave them more opportunities for specialized employment outside the home.

Economic analysis looks at a household as a sort of business. Family members can produce the goods and services they need for themselves or they can trade in the marketplace. In traditional economies, most production is done in the home for household use. Family members grow, preserve and cook food; they spin, weave and sew clothes. The typical person is a jack of all trades rather than a specialist.

In these traditional economies, husbands can for the most part observe and direct what their wives are doing. The skills involved also tend to be fairly general and do not require special schooling, so the investment in human capital is minimal. In this situation, husbands reap obvious advantages from owning their wives' production, with minimal disadvantages.

In effect, the husband is the owner of the household business, and the wife is an employee paid for her labor with living expenses and a share of her husband's estate when he dies.

With the growth of industrial economies and the specialized trades made possible by the large populations of cities, that situation changed. Like men, women have much greater economic opportunities, but only if they invest in their education and do well at jobs that are hard for their husbands to monitor and control.

Whether they make those investments and effort depends on their incentives. If they cannot count on any direct benefit, they are less likely to do so. Under these circumstances, husbands who insist on owning everything their wives produce will find themselves worse off.

"One of the nice innovations about our paper is that it shows that husbands actually can be better off giving their wives rights," Professor Geddes said. "If you think of the total household wealth pie, that can be a lot higher when the wife has the right incentive structure, even though the husband is relinquishing some of his control over the household."

If a married woman can now be anything from a brain surgeon to a chief executive, the whole family, including her husband and her children, will enjoy the economic benefits. But she's unlikely to work hard at her profession or to pursue the necessary training in the first place, if she does not own any of her income. And, in a wrinkle the economists do not explore in their article, parents may be less likely to invest in their daughter's education if all her future earnings might be subject to the whims of a low-life husband.

Few turn-of-the-century women were brain surgeons, of course. But they did have opportunities to pursue profitable urban trades, like running shops or working in offices, where their incomes depended on effort their husbands could not easily monitor or control. Even factory work, where supervisors tracked production, was out of husbands' sight. A woman doing piecework in a garment factory, for instance, would be more likely to work as fast as she could if she herself reaped the rewards.

In the modern rights arrangement, husband and wife become essentially business partners, rather than employer and employee. Each contributes to the household's well-being and each benefits from his or her work as well as from the partnership.

By looking at when different states adopted married-women's property acts, Professor Geddes and Professor Lueck were able to tease out what seem to be the most important factors in changing the property rights of women. As their theory predicts, the rights of women expanded along with city populations, schooling and per capita wealth. A 1 percent increase in city population, for instance, increased the probability that a state would pass a married women's property act by 1.6 percent.

Interestingly, there appears to be something of a tipping point for these various factors. The economists write: "Once per capita wealth exceeds $24,000 (again in 1982 dollars), the population in cities over 100,000 exceeds 23 percent, and the rate of female schooling exceeds 73 percent, the probabilities are always greater than 50 percent and usually above 90 percent."

While historians have not found much record of political pressure to pass these acts, the statistical analysis does indicate that the existence of women's suffrage organizations may have had a positive influence. The longer a state had suffrage groups, the more likely it was to pass the property acts.

The historical record in the United States suggests that the current emphasis on women's education as a means to economic development around the world is well placed. But it also suggests a feedback effect that advocates of that approach have largely missed.

Economic development itself makes the work of women more valuable, which in turn creates pressure to give women the property rights they need to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Those rights, in turn, encourage women to contribute more to economic growth, spurring further development and greater prosperity for both women and men.