Historical gender discrimination does not explain comparative Western European development

Nuno Palma, Jaime Reis, Lisbeth Rodrigues 27 February 2022

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Gender discrimination has been pointed to as a determining factor behind the long-run divergence in incomes between Southern and Northwestern Europe. A prominent ‘girl power’ hypothesis suggests that the different social practices in Southwestern Europe relative to the Low Countries or England are to blame for the inability of the former region to grow during the early modern period and beyond. Moor and Zanden (2010) argue that the European Marriage Pattern (EMP), based on consensus and neo-locality as two core principles, did not manifest itself in the former countries to the same extent as in the latter; these constituted the core EMP areas, where women have had a greater degree of agency since the Middle Ages. As a result of this supposedly heightened agency, historical fertility levels were low and human capital formation higher than elsewhere (Moor and Zanden 2010). The same literature argues that women in the European South suffered to a greater extent from gender discrimination. According to Pleijt and Zanden (2021), for example, women in Southwestern Europe were paid according to social norms and were not allowed to participate in the market economy to the same extent as women in Northwestern Europe. The position of women in the Netherlands, measured by the wage gap, is deemed to have been especially favourable, even in comparison with England but especially in comparison with Southern and Eastern Europe (for a review of the literature, see Zanden et al. 2019). Some of the matters related to this literature have been addressed in prior columns (e.g. Baten and de Pleijt 2018 and 2019).

In new research (Palma et al. 2021), we show that there is no evidence that women in Portugal were historically more discriminated against than women in other parts of Western Europe, including England and the Netherlands (Figure 1). We rely on a new dataset with thousands of observations from archival sources covering six centuries, which we complement with a qualitative discussion of comparative social norms. We show that compared with Northwestern Europe, women in Portugal faced similar gender wage gaps, married at similar ages, and did not face more restrictions to labour market participation. We also discuss the comparative evidence for other parts of Southern Europe, following the existing literature (e.g. Drelichman and González Agudo 2020). 

Figure 1 Comparative gender wage gap (unskilled f/m): daily wages, 1271-1900

Sources: For Portugal, see references listed in Appendix B of Palma et al. (2021). For England, Humphries and Weisdorf (2015). For Denmark, Jensen et al. (2019). For Italy, Pleijt and Zanden (2021) from 1590-1800; Melacrinis (2021) concerns Southern Italy from 1802-1859; and Strangio (2021) concerns a tobacco factory in 1881. For all others, see Pleijt and Zanden (2021).

Our finding raises questions about the causal link between industrialisation and social norms within Western Europe. The evidence points to women’s rights following, rather than causing, economic development. Portugal’s early modern marriage regime was characterised by the two key EMP features as defined by Zanden et al. (2019) – consensus and neo-locality – to a degree similar to that of the North Sea region. Accordingly, the evidence does not support the view that “in southern Europe […] the EMP was not characteristic or was much less prevalent” (Zanden et al. 2019). Women in Portugal also married late (Table 1), and with a weak correlation between marriage ages and income levels (Figure 2). As mentioned, gender wage gaps were similar to those in the North Sea region: unskilled women earned about two-thirds of male wages. We additionally find that women’s labour market participation or property rights were not weaker in Portugal than elsewhere in Western Europe.

Table 1 Historical marriage ages for women in Portugal

Sources: for Cardanha, Rowland (1989); for Eixo, Ferreira (2005); for Selmes, Santos and Lopes (2017).

Figure 2 Mean age of first marriage and real GDP per capita in constant prices (1990 Geary-Khamis “international” dollars), 1500-1910

Sources: GDP per head in constant prices from Palma and Reis (2019) and Henriques et al. (2020); for the mean age at first marriage, see Appendix E of Palma et al. (2021).

Our paper supports the view that the sources of comparative European early modern economic growth performances reside in causes unrelated to different EMP practices (Dennison and Ogilvie 2016). All of Western Europe was broadly similar concerning female agency. This implies that an explanation for the growing income inequality between European countries during the early modern period, especially from the mid-seventeenth century onward – the 'Little Divergence' – must be found elsewhere.

References

Baten, J, and A M de Pleijt (2018), “Girl power Generates Superstars in Long-term Development: Female Autonomy and Human Capital Formation in Early Modern Europe”, CEPR Discussion Paper 13348.

Baten, J and A M de Pleijt (2019), “Female autonomy generates superstars in long-term development: Evidence from 15th to 19th century Europe”, VoxEU.org, 11 February. 

Dennison, T K and S Ogilvie (2016), “Institutions, Demography, and Economic Growth”, The Journal of Economic History 76(1): 205–217.

Drelichman, M and A D González Agudo (2020), “The Gender Wage Gap in Early Modern Toledo, 1550–1650”, The Journal of Economic History 80(2): 351–385.

Ferreira, F M T (2005), "Viver e morrer no território do antigo concelho de Eixo (1590-1910)", Ph.D. Dissertation, Universidade do Minho.

Henriques, A C, N Palma and J Reis (2020), "Economic Growth in Portugal from the Reconquista to the Present", Unpublished manuscript.

Humphries, J and J Weisdorf (2015), “The Wages of Women in England, 1260–1850”, The Journal of Economic History 75(2): 405–447.

Jensen, P S, C V Radu and P Sharp (2019), “A Microlevel Wage Dataset for Eighteenth Century Denmark”, EHES Working Paper, 159.

Melacrinis, F F (2021), "Exploration in Italian Little Divergence Before Unification, Wages and Prices in the South of Italy from 1800 to 1860", Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Rome, Sapienza.

Moor, T D and J L van Zanden (2010), “Girl Power: The European Marriage Pattern and Labour Markets in the North Sea Region in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period”, The Economic History Review 63(1): 1–33.

Palma, N and J Reis (2019), “From Convergence to Divergence: Portuguese Economic Growth, 1527–1850”, The Journal of Economic History 79(2): 477–506.

Palma, N, J Reis and L Rodrigues (2021), “Historical gender discrimination does not explain comparative Western European development: evidence from Portugal, 1300-1900”, CEPR Discussion 15922.

Pleijt, A M D and J L van Zanden (2021), “Two Worlds of Female Labour: Gender Wage Inequality in Western Europe, 1300–1800”, The Economic History Review 74(3): 611-638.

Rowland, R (1989), “Sistemas matrimoniais na Península Ibérica”, Estudos Econômicos (São Paulo) 19(3): 497–553.

Santos, C and B Lopes (2017), “Marriage strategies in communities of Southern Portugal (17th-18th Centuries)”, Revista de Demografía Histórica 35(1), 55–91.

Strangio, D (2021), “Work and care of women. The case of two ‘Manifatture’ (factories)”: The San Michele a Ripa factory and the Italian Tobacco factory”, presented at the "Women, Economics and History: Diversity within Europe" Workshop, Paris, November 26-27.

Van Zanden, J L, T D Moor and S G Carmichael (2019), Capital Women: The European Marriage Pattern, Female Empowerment, and Economic Development in Western Europe, 1300-1800, Oxford University Press.

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Topics:  Economic history Gender

Tags:  gender discrimination, European Marriage Pattern, Portugal, Western Europe, Little Divergence

Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor), Department of Economics, University of Manchester and Research Fellow, CEPR

Senior Research Fellow, Instituto de Ciências Sociais, University of Lisbon

Junior Research Associate at the ISEG-Lisbon School of Economics & Management, Universidade de Lisboa

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