Review of Behavioral Economics > Vol 1 > Issue 4

Wife Sales

Peter T. Leeson, George Mason University, Department of Economics, USA, , Peter J. Boettke, George Mason University, Department of Economics, USA, , Jayme S. Lemke, Political Theory Project, Brown University, USA,
Suggested Citation
Peter T. Leeson, Peter J. Boettke and Jayme S. Lemke (2014), "Wife Sales", Review of Behavioral Economics: Vol. 1: No. 4, pp 349-379.

Publication Date: 18 Dec 2014
© 2014 P. T. Leeson, P. J. Boettke and J. S. Lemke
Law and economics,  Comparative political economy


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In this article:
1. Introduction 
2. Til Death Do Us Part 
3. A Theory of Wife Sales 
4. Predictions and Evidence 
5. Concluding Remarks 


For over a century, English husbands sold their wives at auctions. We argue that wife sales were an institutional response to an unusual constellation of property rights in Industrial Revolution-era English law. That constellation simultaneously required most wives to obtain their husbands' consent to exit their marriages and denied most wives the right to own property. In doing so it precluded direct Coasean divorce bargains between spouses that could dissolve inefficient marriages when wives' valuation of life outside their marriages was higher than husbands' valuation of life inside them. To overcome this problem, spouses used wife sales to conduct divorce bargains indirectly. Wifesale auctions achieved this by identifying and leveraging "suitors" — men who valued unhappy wives more than their current husbands, who unhappy wives preferred to their current husbands, and who had the property rights required to buy unhappy wives' right to exit marriage from their husbands. The resulting transactions enabled unhappy wives in inefficient marriages to exit those marriages where English law otherwise prevented them from doing so.