A Revisionist Analysis of the Failure of the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856

Diganta Mukherjee, Indraneel Dasgupta


Under pressure from a progressive social movement, the government in Bengal passed the (Hindu) Widow Remarriage Act in 1856. Yet few such remarriages subsequently occurred. Standard explanations for this failure rest on demand side arguments - 19th century men needed exorbitant dowry payments to induce them to marry widows. We question this hypothesis. Using Census data from 1881, we argue that far too many men were single for it to be plausible. We advance a supply-side hypothesis instead - far too many men wished to marry widows for predatory reasons. This made it rational for widows (or their parents) to withdraw from the marriage market, even when dowry demands were moderate. Thus, the marriage market failed to implement feasible welfare gains from remarriage due to problems of informational asymmetry. We formalize our argument in terms of a simple model of adverse selection.


Widow Remarriage, Dowry, Polygyny

Full Text: