VoxEU Column Labour Markets Politics and economics Gender

Women’s liberation, household revolution

In the late 19th century, US states began giving economic rights to married women. Before that, laws of ownership and control over property and income gave the husband virtually unlimited power within the household. This column examines how these changes in women’s economic power affected households and children. The findings suggest that expanding women’s rights increased their power at home, causing a ‘household revolution’ of decreased fertility and more education.

How does gender equality affect the number of children a household chooses to bring to this world and their education? This question is implicit to any policy initiatives that wish to empower women. For example, Bhalortra et al. (2021) find that mandating women’s representation in parliament yields a decline in fertility and an increase in schooling in developing countries. Thus, women’s political power affects households and children.

In a recent paper (Hazan et al. 2021), we examine how women’s economic power affects households and children. In one of the most dramatic shifts of economic power in human history, common-law countries, such as Australia, Canada, England, and the US, began giving economic rights to married women in the second half of the 19th century. The history of these rights is discussed in an interview here on Vox (Doepke 2008). 

Before this ‘women’s liberation’, married women were subject to the laws of coverture. Coverture had detailed regulations as to which spouse had ownership and control over property and income, granting the husband virtually unlimited power within the household. Indeed, so great was the husband’s power that a common saying was that “man and wife are one, but the man is the one” (Williams 1947). Indeed, eliminating coverture, by granting women economic rights, was perceived by legislatures to be so great a change to households that the main argument against reform was that

“[England’s] whole social relations would be changed… the husband was and ought to be lord of his household, the regulator of its concerns, and the protector of its inmates, which, if this Bill passed, he would no longer be.” – MP Beresford Hope, 1870

In order to examine the impact of coverture’s demise on households, we use the complete count US Census from 1850 to 1920. We employ two separate identification strategies. The first is to use an event-study design to compare contiguous county-border pairs between states that gave women economic rights at different times. For example, Ohio gave rights before Pennsylvania. Our methodology studies the effects of women’s rights on people living in border counties in Ohio, which gave women rights before Pennsylvania, to their neighbours right across the state border in Pennsylvania, who are culturally and economically virtually identical. While we constantly adjust our maps for an ever-expanding US during this period, Figure 1 shows our county-border pairs in 1920, at the end of our sample.

Figure 1 The US in 1920, showing counties bordering states


We find that women’s rights led to a decrease in the probability of married white women (age 20-40) giving birth by about 1 percentage point. The effect increases over time and can be seen in Figure 2. This implies a decline in fertility of about 0.2 children. Similarly, we find an increase in the probability that a child went to school of about 5-7%. Interestingly, the effect was the same for sons and daughters.

Figure 2 The dynamic impact of women’s rights on fertility, event-study analysis


Our second identification strategy exploits the fact that economic rights were not granted retroactively. That means that couples married right before rights were granted and those married right after had very different experiences. The 1900 and 1910 US censuses asked for the duration of current marriage, which allow us to compare such couples. Our findings are very similar to those from the event study. People married after rights were granted reduced their fertility by 0.2 children and increased the probability their children were in school, as compared to people in the same county married before rights were granted. Thus, it is plausible that couples married after rights were granted can account for our findings from the event study.

Economic rights indeed give women power, but why should women have different opinions than their husbands as to the number of children and their education? Doepke and Tertilt (2009, summarised in Doepke and Tertilt 2008), argue that women, for a variety of reasons, prefer educating their children more than men do. More education makes kids costlier, which reduces fertility. 

While we do not discount this mechanism, we provide evidence for an alternative, complementary story. Maternal-mortality risk was large during this time, with mothers dying during nearly 1% of live births and being horribly injured as a matter of course (Albanesi and Olivetti 2016). This naturally made women prefer fewer children than their husbands, as is well documented in modern developing countries (Ashraf et al. 2020). We find that, following the granting of women’s rights, states with higher maternal-mortality risk saw dramatically greater reductions in fertility than states with lower maternal-mortality risk.

We make a few more observations to conclude that increased women’s power at home can indeed account for our findings. First, couples who were married after rights were granted, and thus were subject to the new laws and changes in household power, can quantitatively account for the changes we document in the event study. Second, lawmakers at the time were concerned about this change in power, as can be seen in both the quote above and Griffin (2003). Finally, household wealth data in 1860 and 1870 allow us to see that wealthier households decreased their fertility by more after rights were granted. This is consistent: economic rights should affect women with wealth more than other women.

We also note that people were aware of the changes: the New York Times covered the evolution of women’s economic rights across the country. Coverage included not only legal changes but important court cases and discussions by legal scholars.

Other potential mechanisms to account for our findings make less sense. One natural candidate would be that women’s rights increased women’s labour-force-participation rates, increasing the time-cost of children and thus reducing fertility. However, only about 5% of married women during this period worked, and our analysis finds that this number did not change following the granting of women’s rights. Similarly, such a story might imply an increased desire to invest in a daughter’s education, since she might go out to work eventually. We do not find a differential impact on daughters compared with sons.

Our previous work on this topic (Hazan et al. 2019a, 2019b) finds that women’s economic rights led to deeper financial markets and more growth. In general, economic growth tends to lead to reduced fertility and increased education of children. However, this economic mechanism should affect all households and not just those married after rights were granted.

Empowering women has been a policy theme of recent decades, as discussed in Djankov and Greenberg (2021); yet, women’s economic rights are not universally respected. Our findings suggest that expanding these rights should increase women’s power at home, causing a ‘household revolution’ of decreased fertility and more education, which in turn promote growth and development. Thus, in addition to being a moral imperative, women’s rights make good economic sense.


Albanesi, S, and C Olivetti (2016), “Gender roles and medical progress”, Journal of Political Economy 124(3): 650–95.

Ashraf, N, E Field, A Voena and R Ziparo (2020), “Maternal mortality risk and spousal differences in the demand for children”, working paper.

Bhalortra, S, D Clarke, J F Gomes and A Venkataramani (2021), “Maternal mortality and women’s political power,” unpublished manuscript.

Djankov, S, and P Goldberg (2021), “Gendered laws do matter”, VoxEU.org, 24 May.

Doepke, M, and M Tertilt (2009), “Women’s liberation: What’s in it for men?”, Quarterly Journal of Economics 124(4): 1541–91.

Doepke, M, and M Tertilt (2008), “Women’s liberation: What’s in it for men?”, VoxEU.org, May 26. 

Doepke, M (2008), “The emergence of women’s rights and gender equality”, interview by Romesh Vaitilingam, VoxEU.org, 21 November.

Hazan, M, D Weiss and H Zoabi (2019a), “Women’s liberation as a financial innovation”, Journal of Finance 74: 2915–56.

Hazan, M, D Weiss and H Zoabi (2019b), “Women’s liberation as a financial innovation”, VoxEU.org, 23 March.

Hazan, M, D Weiss and H Zoabi (2021), “Women’s liberation, household revolution”, CEPR Discussion Paper 16838.

Williams, G L (1947), “The legal unity of husband and wife”, Modern Law Review 10: 16–31.

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