The plough and the veil

Why do some cultures encourage women to work, while others prefer they stay secluded in the home? Why do women in Africa command a bride price for their hand in marriage, while in northern India it is the bride’s family who must pay a dowry to the groom? Why are women secluded in the home in many Islamic countries, but not in Africa? Why is there the same contrast between female seclusion in northern India and not in southern India? Why are sons so intensely preferred to daughters in China?

It’s all about the plough.

A new paper presented yesterday at NYU by Alberto Alesina, Paola Giuliano and Nathan Nunn:

…[S]ocieties with a tradition of plough agriculture tend to have the belief that the natural place for women is inside the home and the natural place for me is outside the home. Looking across countries, subnational districts, ethnic groups and individuals, we identify a link between historic plough-use and a number of outcomes today, including female labor force participation, female participation in politics, female ownership of firms, the sex ratio and self-expressed attitudes about the role of women in society.

The idea orginates with Ester Boserup (who wrote a book with the same title as this post), who hypothesized that the way people farm influenced gendered division of labor and attitudes about women’s roles that persist to today.

She observed that in societies that didn’t rely on the plough to till the land—the case in most of Sub-Saharan Africa, and southern India—farming was largely done by women. By contrast, in societies that did use the plough—including North Africa, the Middle East, and northern India—men strong enough to do the plowing dominated agriculture, while women, sometimes veiled, were restricted to duties in the home. Their labor valued less, women in plough societies paid dowries rather than receiving a bride price. This distinction persisted in contemporary labor force participation, Boserup thought, for example in southern India where women were more likely to leave the home for jobs in factories than their contemporaries in the north.

Alesina et. al. have now confirmed Boserup’s findings with a variety of cross-country and within-country data. They find these effects even persist among second-generation US immigrant women, who work outside the home more when they are from non-plough cultures compared to plough cultures.

Obviously, cultures do evolve. This 1917 recruitment poster for British women to take up the plow while their menfolk are away at war reminds us how disruptions like war can help to shift gender roles relatively quickly—in the US, too, droves of women entering the workforce during World War II irrevocably altered American attitudes towards women working outside the home.

This paper is part of two separate kinds of studies now enjoying a vogue in economics: (1) ancient history matters, and (2) culture matters. The authors interpret their findings as suggesting “a very long persistence of cultural traits.”

-- Top photocredit: flickr user Bindaas Madhavi