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Why Wife-Selling Was Advantageous for Wives

An economist explains how an Industrial Revolution-era English practice isn't as bad as it sounds (even though it sounds bad).

After a few too many rum-soaked basins of furmity, a man at the fair in Casterbridge spouts off, saying:

“For my part, I don’t see why men who have got wives and don’t want ‘em, shouldn’t get ride of ‘em as these gipsy fellows do their old horses...Why shouldn’t they put ‘em up and sell ‘em at auction to men who are in need of such articles? Hey? Why, begad, I’d sell mine this minute if anybody would buy her!”

This is followed by the inciting incident that kicks off Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. In the work of fiction, this is an isolated aberration, a lapse in judgment brought on by hitting the rum-laced furmity—a close relative of oatmeal, as unappetizing as that sounds.

Thing is, the practice of wife selling wasn’t fictional. In Industrial Revolution era-England, selling a wife to a gypsy for his horse was, for members of the lower and working classes, often the best option for divorce. And a new research paper from the economics department of George Mason University argues that being sold was often actually the best thing that an unhappy wife could hope for.

“While the legal context that gave rise to the institution of wife sales may rightly be regarded as an example of the subjection of women or even misogynist, it would be a mistake to regard the institution of wife sales this way,” the study states.

Once you get over the fact that this was actually a practice that really happened from 1730 through around the end of the 19th century —in what was at the time the most advanced nation in the world, no less—it probably strikes you as a weird thing for economists to examine.

Until this paper came out, economists had been mute on the subject, but then the study’s lead author, Peter Leeson, isn’t a typical economist. He, after all, was the man who gave me a rational explanation for human sacrifice. If anyone is going to examine the economics of wife selling—and use the word “empowerment” while explaining it—it’s Leeson.

It would have to be a pretty extreme legal context to make standing in the market being auctioned off the best option, but it was. “Industrial revolution-era English law created a strikingly imbalanced state of affairs with respect to marital property law,” Leeson explained.

The practice emerged when married women could not own property. Coverture laws dictated that everything she owned belonged to her husband once they were married.

And laws being what they were, men could get out of a marriage without their wives consent, but women couldn’t get out of marriages without the consent of their husbands. Getting a divorce was extremely difficult for either party, but a man could get a de facto judicial separation just by kicking his wife out of the house and alleging adultery. This practice was much more common than wife selling.

But if the wife was unhappy, going to auction afforded her control over her situation, that she didn’t have as an unhappy spouse. The study found that almost every single wife went on sale or to auction of her own volition and held a veto over where she went next.

"Wife sales permitted unhappy wives to trade marriages they valued less for marriages they valued more.”

I asked Leeson who was in the market for used wives, and he explained that the suitors were usually men who were looking for used wives, who had struck out on the conventional marriage marketplace, but sometimes it could be agents operating on some wealthy person’s behalf, or in some cases it wasn’t men who wanted wives at all, but the family members of the unhappy wife.

It obviously still doesn’t sound like much by contemporary standards, but the money (and, often, alcohol) that a suitor was willing to give the soon-to-be-ex-husband was the only leverage an unhappy wife had to escape an unhappy marriage. “Such sales enhanced the welfare of Industrial Revolution-era English wives,” Leeson said. “The wives who participated in wife sales chose to participate, and even those who seemed to do so reluctantly had the power to veto their sales...Wife sales permitted unhappy wives to trade marriages they valued less for marriages they valued more.”

As economists, Leeson and his co-authors were examining how the Coase theorem could apply to marriages. The Coase theorem states that “in the absence of transaction costs—which in [the wife-selling] context you can think about the cost of actually engaging in a bargain or exchange itself—the initial distribution of rights has no effect on the ultimate allocation of property rights,” Leeson explained. “Or to say it slightly differently, that the allocation of property rights is independent of the eventual distribution of those rights.”

In wife-selling, the transaction costs are zero: wives know who they’re dealing with—the husband—and they can easily talk with them. The only problem, then, is having something to bargain with. Hence, the sale.

The most hilarious thing about getting an economist to weigh in on marriage is how devoid of any talk of romance that perspective is. “The way that we think of marriage from an economic perspective is to think about how much each of the spouses value being in the marriage relative to one another and relative to living outside of the marriage,” Leeson explained. “If for example you’re not very happy in your marriage but your wife is extremely happy in your marriage—if she values being in it more than you value being outside of it—then we’d say the efficient thing to do is to stay in the marriage.”

But basically up until about 200 years ago, marriage was pretty much only thought of as an economic relationship. “Marriage was for most of human history a variety of exchange, one that consolidated social ties between families or clans,”Justin E.H. Smith wrote in an essay in Lapham’s Quarterly . Smith points to the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Françoise Héritier, who in tandem (across time) argue that marriage began as a comodification of young women, and a masculine appropriation of their reproductive capacities.

I guess with that view, a woman taking part in her own sale, particularly to someone of her choosing who might value being in a marriage with her more than her current husband (and has the means to purchase a used wife) is a step in the right direction, but not as much as ending coverture and granting women property rights, which began in the mid-19th century through laws—the Infant Custody Act of 1839 being one of the earliest—and brought an end to the institution of wife selling by the start of the 20th.

“When English law allows women to have property rights, then we don’t need the institution of wife sales, since the unhappy wife has means to negotiate her exit,” Leeson said.

“Of course wife sales weren’t a panacea to wives’ problems in Industrial Revolution-era England,” the study notes. “This paper focused on one kind of problem that wives confronted as a result of English law: the problem of obtaining permission to exit their existing marriages when their valuation of life outside those marriages was higher than their husbands' valuation of life inside them. Our analysis demonstrates how wife sales helped unhappy wives overcome this problem.”

So there you have it: not a panacea to every type of problem, but in a very particular set of circumstances, a plus.