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States of Disunion: American Marriage and Divorce, 1867–1906


This dissertation comprises three essays on the historical relationship between capitalist development, state formation and marriage and divorce patterns in the United States.

The first examines the effects of liberalizing women’s property rights on divorce. In the late nineteenth century, most American states gave married women new rights to own and control assets and earnings. Using administrative data on most U.S. divorces between 1867 and 1906, I show that rights transfers gave women financial independence from husbands that enabled them to exit undesirable unions at greater rates. However, husbands also filed for more divorces following women’s economic gains, suggesting that the violation of traditional gender norms of household governance also destabilized unions.

The second essay explores the legal behavior of men and women who faced significant restrictions on divorce. Before the 1970s, U.S. states allowed legal divorces only for specified causes. Examining data on the causes cited by divorce seekers, I document the routinization of divorce procedure over historical time. I also exploit legal changes to demonstrate that individuals adapted to divorce regulations by changing the causes they cited. Strategic legal behavior was widespread but differed by gender, with men being more prone toward routinization and women being more likely to adapt to new rules.

The third essay reflects critically on the quality of available data on nineteenth-century marriages. I compare vital records of marriages to census microdata on marital duration, showing that the latter exhibit significant measurement error. Despite growing interest by elite state actors in measuring marriage and divorce at the population level, vital recording, which had administrative origins in the clarification of individual legal statuses, seems to have elicited more reliable participation in official knowledge projects. I analyze the extent and distribution of mismeasurement, which has consequences for both the study of American political development and the validity of quantitative historical research on the family.

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