DP16838 Women's Liberation, Household Revolution

Author(s): Moshe Hazan, David Weiss, Hosny Zoabi
Publication Date: December 2021
Keyword(s): Education, Fertility, Household bargaining, Property rights, Women's Empowerment, Women's liberation
JEL(s):
Programme Areas: Development Economics, Economic History, Macroeconomics and Growth
Link to this Page: cepr.org/active/publications/discussion_papers/dp.php?dpno=16838

How does women's empowerment affect fertility and children's education? In a dramatic revolution, U.S. states gave economic rights to married women between 1850-1920. Prior to this "women's liberation," married women were subject to the laws of coverture, which granted the husband virtually unlimited power of the purse within the household. Women's legal identities were subsumed (or covered) by their husbands. We show that granting women economic rights led to less fertility and more education. We employ an event study using the full count U.S. census and contiguous county-border pairs in bordering states that gave rights at different times. Additionally, rights were not retroactive, implying differences between those married before/after reforms. This alternative identification strategy confirms our findings and illuminates mechanisms. Quantitatively, women's empowerment can account for 15% (20%) of the decline (increase) in fertility (education) during the U.S. demographic transition. We find that shifting bargaining power accounts for these results with the underlying spousal disagreement relating to maternal mortality risk. Wealthier families decreased their fertility by more than other families, consistent with the notion that differences in control over wealth are responsible for our results. Articles from the New York Times confirm that people were aware of the implications of the legal changes. We provide evidence to negate mechanisms besides bargaining power shifts to explain our findings. Considering that the U.S. was a developing country at the time, our findings may be relevant for policy in developing countries today, where maternal mortality is still high and women are economically disadvantaged.