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To Honor and Obey: Efficiency, Inequality and Patriarchal Property Rights

To Honor and Obey:
Efficiency, Inequality, and Patriarchal Property Rights
Until about 1960, marriage ceremonies in the United States often included
a wife’s vow to honor and obey (as well as love and cherish) her husband in
return for his vow to love and cherish her. While such explicit asymmetry in
commitments is now uncommon, cultural norms of male authority within
marriage remain quite strong. In June of 1998, for instance, the convention of
Southern Baptists, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, declared that a
wife should “submit herself graciously” to her husband’s leadership.1 Why has
marriage traditionally reinforced hierarchical relationships between men and
women? Why has it become more egalitarian? And why does opposition to
egalitarian marriage remain persistent?
The new institutional economics provides some important insights into
the logic of contractual relationships between capitalists and workers, landlords
and tenants, slaveowners and slaves. The logic of contractual relationships
between men and women, however, has been largely neglected. Gary Becker’s
(1981) emphasis on natural altruism within the family has discouraged
consideration of problems of either efficiency or inequality on the home front
because the household is treated as a unitary agent. As a growing feminist
literature demonstrates, however, there are strong parallels between the
1 International Herald Tribune, June 11, 1998, p.1.