The Narrowing of the Gender Wealth Gap across the Nineteenth-Century United States


Shammas (1994) documented the expansion of women's wealth holding across the nineteenth-century United States, explaining it as the result of the married women's property acts (MWPAs) passed in most of states starting circa 1840. We look at the timing of the expansion of women's wealth holding, drawing on archival and published evidence from probate records. Starting with Richmond, Virginia, and its agricultural hinterland, we consider a variety of places, urban and rural, in the South and North, to suggest a general view of the eastern United States. In rough outline, while colonial women were at most one-tenth of probated wealth holders, antebellum women were at least one-fifth. Levels of women's wealth holding increased even more. The substantial narrowing of the gender wealth gap cannot be attributed to the MWPAs that followed. Perhaps those acts will explain the further narrowing of the gender wealth gap in the later nineteenth century, but that narrowing might better be understood as a continuation of previous trends. Our results remind that some legal reforms can better be understood as reflections than causes of social change.