This study sheds light on the development of family structures in a polygamous context with a particular emphasis on wife order, and offers an explanation for the association between outcomes of children and the status of their mothers among wives based on observable maternal characteristics. In a simple framework, I propose that selection into rank among wives with respect to female productivity takes place: highly productive women are more strongly demanded in the marriage market than less productive women, giving them a higher chance of becoming first wives. Furthermore, productivity is positively associated with a wife’s bargained share of family income to be spent on consumption and investment for herself and her offspring because of greater contributions to family income and larger outside options. The findings are empirically supported by a positive relationship between indicators of female productivity and women’s levels of seniority among wives, and by a concise replication of existing evidence relating wife order to children’s educational outcomes in household survey data from rural Ethiopia.

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