The Political Economy of Gender Disparity in Law

Jayme S. Lemke

Advisor: Christopher Coyne, PhD, Department of Economics

Committee Members: Peter J. Boettke, Tyler Cowen, Peter T. Leeson

Van Metre Hall (formerly Founders Hall), #456
April 24, 2013, 10:30 AM to 07:00 AM


Throughout the history of England and the United States, judges and legislators have regularly found occasion to create and enforce laws that are conditional upon gender. In British and American history much of this disparate treatment under the law descends from the British common law doctrine of coverture, which effectively suspended a woman’s legal independence upon marriage. Both the wife and any property she owned or acquired were seen as completely subsumed by the husband. Consequently, women faced severe and gender-specific legal restrictions on their ability to exit marriage, own property, and stand as independent legal entities.

I use three historical examples to analyze the evolution and function of these legal institutions as they governed the lives of women living in the early American and British common law legal systems. First, I consider the effect of jurisdictional competition on the evolution of the rules governing married women’s ownership of property in the early United States, finding that state governments are more likely to grant wives equality under the law when the success of legislators is tied to attracting female population. Second, I analyze the motivations behind the liberalization of divorce law that took place in the 19th century United States, finding that entrepreneurial attorneys and local business owners were key drivers behind these early victories for women’s rights. The third case study, jointly authored with Peter T. Leeson and Peter J. Boettke, explores the peculiar institution of wife sales in early modern Britain. We argue that these public auctions enabled wives to use the capital of bidders to buy their way out of unhappy marriages, and as such emerged as a consequence of married women’s inability to own property.