Interjurisdictional Competition and the Married Women’s Property Acts

PUBLIC CHOICE 166.3 (2016): 291-313

Abstract: Married women in the early nineteenth century United States were not permitted to own property, enter into contracts without their husband’s permission, or stand in court as independent persons. This severely limited married women’s ability to engage in formal business ventures, collect rents, administer estates, and manage bequests through wills. By the dawn of the twentieth century, legal reform in nearly every state had removed these restrictions by extending formal legal and economic rights to married women. Legal reform being by nature a public good with dispersed benefits, what forces impelled legislators to undertake the costs of action? In this paper, I argue that interjurisdictional competition between states and territories in the nineteenth century was instrumental in motivating these reforms. Two conditions are necessary for interjurisdictional competition to function: (1) law-makers must hold a vested interest in attracting population to their jurisdictions, and (2) residents must be able to actively choose between the products of different jurisdictions. Using evidence from the passage of the Married Women’s Property Acts, I find that legal reforms were adopted first and in the greatest strength in those regions in which there was active interjurisdictional competition.