Discussion paper

DP16838 Women’s Liberation and the Demographic Transition

U.S. states gave legal and economic rights to married women between 1850 and 1920. Prior to this “women’s liberation,” married women were subject to the laws of coverture, which granted virtually unlimited power to their husbands. Using data from the full count U.S. census and contiguous county-border pairs bordering states that gave rights at different times, we use an event-study analysis to show that rights causally reduced fertility. Thus, women’s rights can help explain the demographic transition, itself one of the most profound societal changes experienced by industrializing countries. Interestingly, women’s rights were not granted retroactively, allowing us to compare people married before and after the reforms. This alternative empirical strategy confirms our findings and illuminates mechanisms. Shifting bargaining power from husband to wife with women’s rights accounts for our results, with the underlying spousal disagreement relating to maternal mortality risk. Women’s empowerment can account for about 20% of the decline in fertility during the demographic transition, and may have relevant implications for policy in today’s developing countries.


Hazan, M, D Weiss and H Zoabi (2022), ‘DP16838 Women’s Liberation and the Demographic Transition‘, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 16838. CEPR Press, Paris & London. https://cepr.org/publications/dp16838