Industrial, regional, and gender divides in British unemployment between the wars

By Meredith M. Paker (Nuffield College, Oxford)

This blog is part of a series of New Researcher blogs.

A view from Victoria Tower, depicts the position of London on both sides of the Thames, 1930. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

‘Sometimes I feel that unemployment is too big a problem for people to deal with … It makes things no better, but worse, to know that your neighbours are as badly off as yourself, because it shows to what an extent the evil of unemployment has grown. And yet no one does anything about it’.

A skilled millwright, Memoirs of the Unemployed, 1934.

At the end of the First World War, an inflationary boom collapsed into a global recession, and the unemployment rate in Britain climbed to over 20 per cent. While the unemployment rate in other countries recovered during the 1920s, in Britain it remained near 10 per cent for the entire decade before the Great Depression. This persistently high unemployment was then intensified by the early 1930s slump, leading to an additional two million British workers becoming unemployed.

What caused this prolonged employment downturn in Britain during the 1920s and early 1930s? Using newly digitized data and econometrics, my project provides new evidence that a structural transformation of the economy away from export-oriented heavy manufacturing industries toward light manufacturing and service industries contributed to the employment downturn.

At a time when few countries collected any reliable national statistics at all, in every month of the interwar period the Ministry of Labour published unemployment statistics for men and women in 100 industries. These statistics derived from Britain’s unemployment benefit program established in 1911—the first such program in the world. While many researchers have used portions of this remarkable data by manually entering the data into a computer, I was able to improve on this technique by developing a process using an optical-character recognition iPhone app. The digitization of all the printed tables in the Ministry of Labour’s Gazette from 1923 through 1936 enables the econometric analysis of four times as many industries as in previous research and permits separate analyses for male and female workers (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Data digitization. Left-hand side is a sample printed table in the Ministry of Labour Gazette. Right-hand side is the cleaned digitized table in Excel.

This new data and analysis reveal four key findings about interwar unemployment.  First, the data show that unemployment was different for men and women. The unemployment rate for men was generally higher than for women, averaging 16.1 percent and 10.3 per cent, respectively.  Unemployment increased faster for women at the onset of the Great Depression but also recovered quicker (Figure 2). One reason for these distinct experiences is that men and women generally worked in different industries. Many unemployed men had previously worked in coal mining, building, iron and steel founding, and shipbuilding, while many unemployed women came from the cotton-textile industry, retail, hotel and club services, the woolen and worsted industry, and tailoring.

Figure 2: Male and female monthly unemployment rates. Source: Author’s digitization of Ministry of Labour Gazettes.

Second, regional differences in unemployment rates in the interwar period were not due only to the different industries located in each region. There were large regional differences in unemployment above and beyond the effects of the composition of industries in a region.

Third, structural change played an important role in interwar unemployment. A series of regression models indicate that, ceteris paribus, industries that expanded to meet production needs during World War I had higher unemployment rates in the 1920s. Additionally, industries that exported much of their production also faced more unemployment. An important component of the national unemployment problem was thus the adjustments that some industries had to make due to the global trade disturbances following World War I.

Finally, the Great Depression accelerated this structural change. In almost every sector, more adjustment occurred in the early 1930s than in the 1920s. Workers were drawn into growing industries from declining industries, at a particularly fast rate during the Great Depression.

Taken together, these results suggest that there were significant industrial, regional, and gender divides in interwar unemployment that are obscured by national unemployment trends. The employment downturn between the wars was thus intricately linked with the larger structural transformation of the British economy.

Meredith M. Paker

Twitter: @mmpaker

Growth Before Birth: The Relationship between Placental Weights and Infant and Maternal Health in early-twentieth century Barcelona

By Gregori Galofré-Vilà (Universitat Pompeu Fabra and Barcelona Graduate School of Economics) and Bernard Harris (University of Strathclyde)

R. Alcaraz, Maternitat, Ayuda al desvalido. Available at Wikicommons.

It is now widely accepted that early-life conditions have a significant effect on lifelong health (see e.g. Wells 2016).  Many researchers have sought to examine intrauterine health by studying birth weights, but the evidence of historical changes is mixed.  Although some researchers have argued that birth weights have increased over time (e.g. O’Brien et al. 2020), others have found little evidence of any significant change over the course of the last century (Roberts and Wood 2014).  These findings have led Schneider (2017: 25) to conclude either that, ‘fetal health has remained stagnant’ or that ‘the indicators used to measure fetal health … are not as helpful as research might hope’.

The absence of unequivocal evidence of changes in birth weight has encouraged researchers to pay more attention to other intrauterine health indicators, including the size and shape of the placenta and the ratio of placental weight to birth weight (e.g. Burton et al. 2010).  The placenta transfers oxygen and nutrients from the mother to foetus and provides the means of removing waste products.  Although the evidence regarding changes in placental weight is also mixed, it has been described as a ‘mirror’ reflecting the foetus’ intrauterine status (Kaur 2016: 185).

Historical studies of changes in placental weights are still very rare.  However, we have collected data on almost 4000 placentas which were weighed and measured at Barcelona’s Provincial House (La Casa Provincial de Maternitat i Expósits) between 1905 and 1920.  Our new paper (Galofré-Vilà and Harris, in press) examines the impact of short-term fluctuations in economic conditions on placental weights immediately before and during the First World War, together with the relationship between placental weights and other maternal and neonatal health indicators and long-term changes in placental weight over the course of the century.

Our first aim was to compare changes in birth weight with changes in placental weight.  As we can see from Figure 1, there was little change in average birth weights, but placental weights fluctuated more markedly.  In our paper, we show how these fluctuations may have been related to changes in real wage rates over the same period.

Figure 1. The development of birthweight and placental weight, 1905-1920. Source: as per article. Note: The dark blue line shows the monthly data and the red lines show the yearly averages with their associated 95 percent confidence intervals.

These findings support claims that the placenta is able to ‘adapt’ to changing economic circumstances, but our evidence also shows that such ‘adaptations’ may not be able to counteract the impact of maternal undernutrition entirely.  As Figure 2 demonstrates, although most neonatal markers show a reverse J-shaped curve (a higher risk of perinatal mortality with premature or small-for-gestational-age births), the relationship between placental weight and early-life mortality is U-shaped.

We also control for maternal characteristics using a Cox proportional hazards model.  Even if increases in placental weight can be regarded as a form of ‘adaptive response’, they are not cost-free, as both very low and very high placental weights are associated with increased risks of early-life mortality.  These findings are consistent with David Barker’s conclusion that elevated placental weight ratios lead to adverse outcomes in later life (Barker et al. 2010).

Figure 2. Early-life Mortality, Birthweight, Birth Length, Placental weight and BW:PW ratio. Source: as per article.

We have also compared the average value of placental weights in the Provincial House with modern Spanish data.  These data suggest that average placental weights have declined over the course of the last century.  However, the data from other countries are more mixed.  Placental weight also seems to have declined in Finland and Switzerland, but this is less obvious in other countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States.

Overall, whilst placental weights may well provide a sensitive guide to the intrauterine environment, we still know relatively little about the ways in which they may, or may not, have changed over time.  However, this picture may change if more historical series come to light.

To contact the authors: 

Gregori Galofré-Vilà,, Twitter: @gregorigalofre

Bernard Harris,


Barker, D. J. P., Thornburg, K. L., Osmond, C., Kajantie, E., and Eriksson, J. G. (2010), ‘The Surface Area of the Placenta and Hypertension in the Offspring in Later Life’, International Journal of Developmental Biology, 54, 525-530.

Burton, G., Jauniaux, E. and and Charnock-Jones, D.S. (2010), ‘The influence of the intrauterine environment on human placental development’, International Journal of Developmental Biology, 54, 303-11.

Galofré-Vilà, G. and Harris, B. (in press), ‘Growth Before birth: the relationship between placental weights and infant and maternal health in early-twentieth century Barcelona’, Economic History Review.

Kaur, D. (2016), ‘Assessment of placental weight, newborn birth weight in normal pregnant women and anaemic pregnant women: a correlation and comparative study’, International Journal of Health Sciences and Research, 6, 180-7.

O’Brien, O., Higgins, M. and Mooney, E. (2020), ‘Placental weights from normal deliveries in Ireland’, Irish Journal of Medical Science, 189, 581-3.

Roberts, E., and Wood, P. (2014), ‘Birth weight and adult health in historical perspective: Evidence from a New Zealand Cohort, 1907-1922’, Social Science and Medicine, 107, 154-161.

Schneider, E. (2017), ‘Fetal health stagnation: have health conditions in utero improved in the US and Western and Northern Europe over the past 150 years?’, Social Science and Medicine, 179, 18-26.

Wells, J.C.K. (2016), The metabolic ghetto: evolutionary perspectives on nutrition, power relations and chronic disease, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Women in the German Economy: A Long Way to Gender Equality (NR Session 4)

By Theresa Neef (Freie Universität Berlin)

This research is due to be presented in the fourth New Researcher Online Session: ‘Equality & Wages’.


Scanned image of a mid-1930s postcard depicting Unter den Linden in Berlin. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Female employees in the European Union (EU-27) earn, on average, about 85 per cent of the wages received by male employees. While some countries such as France and Sweden exhibit closer pay equality, women in Germany face a larger gap and receive just 79 per cent of the average male wage, according to the 2018 results from Eurostat 2020. How did this state of affairs emerge?

To understand contemporary pay inequality, it is vital to take a long-run perspective and look at the development of the gender pay ratio in Germany since 1913.  An in-depth analysis of historical inquiry reports and publications by the statistical offices reveals that in 1913 women in Germany earned around 44 per cent of male wages. Although  World War I led to a temporary increase in women’s pay in blue-collar occupations, this trend was soon reversed and the gender-segregated labour market was re-established following demobilization.

The interwar period brought about the most dynamic leap in gender relations during the 20th century. While in 1920 German women earned on average 45% of a man’s average pay, by 1937 this share had increased to 61%, a consequence of women’s occupational transition and the more progressive institutional framework adopted during the Weimar Republic.

With the growing number of white-collar jobs, young females had job opportunities that were better paid and more socially accepted than the work in low-paid domestic services or agriculture. That was an opportunity they took: from 1910 to 1960, women increased their share in those fast-growing occupations from 18% to 45%, while their share decreased in agricultural work. This trend most likely contributed to women’s wage gains relative to men.

During the Weimar Republic, a new constitution and a more progressive institutional framework fostered further equalization of earnings, especially in the white-collar occupations. In 1919, the Weimar constitution introduced compulsory schooling for all youths under 18 years irrespective of gender. For the first time, this law provided girls with the same chances to receive vocational education and an apprenticeship as their male peers. All youths that worked in commercial and industrial firms were obliged to attend vocational commercial school at least once a week for two to three years.  Before the introduction of this law, employers hardly invested in girls’ apprenticeships because women were seen as transient employees leaving the labour force upon marriage. This non-gendered schooling obligation led to a dynamic convergence of vocational training between boys and girls.

In the post-1945 period, the gender pay gap decreased in Germany from 65 percent in 1960 to 74 per cent  twenty years later. In contrast,  Sweden took the lead among European countries and by 1980, the gender pay gap was just 14 percentage points. However, since the 1980s, the gender pay gap has stagnated in many European countries.


Figure 1: Gender pay ratio, Germany, Sweden, and the USA. Swedish and German series based on mean earnings; US-American time series based on median earnings if not indicated differently. The German time series covers the German Reich, the Federal Republic of Germany and reunified Germany (hollow items).


All in all, the long-run perspective shows that since the beginning of the 20th century Germany has persistently exhibited a lower gender pay equality than other European economies, such as Sweden, despite the important improvement observed in the interwar period. In the postwar period, the gap between Germany and Sweden widened further due to slower progress in the young Federal Republic. These results suggest that differences in gender pay inequality across countries can be traced back to historical roots that go beyond the developments in the past forty years.

from VOX – Men

by Victoria Baranov (University of Melbourne), Ralph De Haas (EBRD, CEPR, and Tilburg University) and Pauline Grosjean (University of New South Wales). More information on the authors below.

The content of this article was originally published on VOX and has been published here with the authors’ consent.


Mitchell, T 1834, To the Right Honorable Edward Geoffrey Smith Stanley this map of the Colony of New South Wales, ca. 1:540 000, National Library of Australia. Available here.


Why are men three times as likely than women to die from suicide? And why do many unemployed men refuse to apply for jobs that are typically done by women? This column argues that a better understanding of masculinity norms – the rules and standards that guide and constrain men’s behavior in society – can help answer important questions like these. We present evidence from Australia on how historical circumstances have instilled strong and persistent masculine identities that continue to influence outcomes related to male health; violence, suicide, and bullying; attitudes towards homosexuals; and occupational gender segregation.


What makes a ‘real’ man? According to traditional gender norms, men ought to be self-reliant, assertive, competitive, violent when needed, and in control of their emotions (Mahalik et al., 2003). Two current debates illustrate how such masculinity norms have profound economic and social impacts. First, in many countries, men die younger than women and are consistently less healthy. Masculinity norms, especially a penchant for violence and risk taking, are an important cultural driver of this gender health gap (WHO, 2013). A second debate links masculinity norms to occupational gender segregation. Technological progress and globalization have disproportionately affected male employment. Yet, many newly unemployed men refuse to fill jobs that do not match their self-perceived gender identity (Akerlof and Kranton, 2000).

The extent to which men are expected to conform to stereotypical masculinity norms nevertheless differs across societies. This raises the question: where do masculinity norms come from? The origins of gender norms about women have been the focus of a vibrant literature (Giuliano, 2018). By contrast, the origins of norms that guide and constrain the behavior of men have received no attention in the economics literature.

In recent research, we argue that strict masculinity norms can emerge in response to highly skewed sex ratios (the number of males relative to females) which intensify competition among men (Baranov, De Haas and Grosjean, 2020). When the sex ratio is more male biased, male-male competition for scarce females is more intense. This competition can intensify violence, bullying, and intimidating behavior (e.g. bravado), which, once entrenched in local culture, continue to manifest themselves in present-day outcomes long after sex ratios have normalized. We test this hypothesis using data from a unique natural experiment: the convict colonization of Australia.


Register of Convicts Applications to Mary 4-4509 p 75
NSW – Convicts Applications to Marry


Australia as a historical experiment

To establish a causal link from sex ratios to the manifestation of masculinity norms, we exploit the convict colonization of Australia. Between 1787 and 1868, Britain transported 132,308 convict men but only 24,960 convict women to Australia. Convicts were not confined to prisons but allocated across the colonies in a highly centralized manner. This created a variegated spatial pattern in sex ratios, and consequently in local male-to-male competition, in an otherwise homogeneous setting.

Convicts and ex-convicts represented the majority of the colonial population in Australia well into the mid-19th century. Voluntary migration was limited and mainly involved men migrating in response to male-biased economic opportunities available in agriculture and, after the discovery of gold in the 1850s, mining. Because of the predominance of male convicts and migrants, biased population sex ratios endured for over a century (Figure 1).

Figure 1 copy


Identifying the lasting impact of skewed sex ratios

We regress present-day manifestations of masculinity norms, including violent behavior, bullying, and stereotypically male occupational choice on historical sex ratios, collected from the first reliable census in each Australian state (see also Grosjean and Khattar, 2019). An empirical challenge is that variation in historical sex ratios could reflect unobservable characteristics. To tackle this, we instrument the historical sex ratio by the sex ratio among convicts only. This instrument is highly relevant since most of the white Australian population initially consisted of convicts. Moreover, convicts were not free to move: a centralized assignment scheme determined their location as a function of labor needs, which we control for by initial economic specialization. Throughout the analysis, we also control for time-invariant geographic and historic characteristics as well as key present-day controls (sex ratio, population, and urbanization).


Masculinity norms among Australian men today

Using the above empirical strategy, we derive four sets of results:

1. Violence, suicide, and health

We first assess the impact of historically skewed sex ratios on present-day violence and health outcomes. Evidence suggests that men adhering to traditional masculinity norms attach a stronger stigma to mental health problems and tend to avoid health services. As a proxy for the avoidance of preventative health care we use local suicide and prostate cancer rates. Prostate cancer is often curable if treated early, but avoidance of diagnosis is a public health concern. The endorsement of strict masculinity norms is also associated with aggression, excessive drinking, and smoking.

Our estimates show that today, the rates of assault and sexual assault are higher in parts of Australia that were more male biased in the past. A one unit increase in the historical sex ratio (defined as the ratio of the number of men over the number of women) is associated with an 11 percent increase in the rate of assault and a 16 percent increase in sexual assaults. We also find strong evidence of elevated rates of male suicide, prostate cancer, and lung disease in these areas. For male suicide – the leading cause of death for Australian men under 45 – a one unit increase in the historical sex ratio is associated with a staggering 26 percent increase.

2. Occupational gender segregation

A second manifestation of male identity is occupational choice. Our results paint a striking picture. A one unit increase in the sex ratio is associated with a nearly 1 percentage point shift from the share of men employed in neutral (e.g. real estate, retail) or stereotypically female occupations (e.g. teachers, receptionists) to stereotypically male occupations (e.g. carpenters, metal workers).

3. Support for same-sex marriage

We capture the political expression of masculine identity by opposition against same-sex marriage, which we measure using voting records from the nation-wide referendum on same-sex marriage in 2017. Our results show that the share of votes in favor of marriage equality is substantially lower in areas where sex ratios were more male biased in the past. A one unit increase in the historical sex ratio is associated with a nearly 3 percentage point decrease in support for same-sex marriage. This is slightly over 6 percent of the mean.

4. Bullying

Lastly, we find that boys, but not girls, are more likely to be bullied at school in areas that used to be more male biased in the past. The magnitude of the results is considerable and in line with the magnitude of the results for assaults (measured in adults). A one unit increase in the historical sex ratio is associated with a higher likelihood of parents (teachers) reporting bullying of boys by 13.7 (5.2) percentage points. This suggests that masculinity norms are perpetuated through horizontal transmission: peer pressure, starting at a young age in the playground.



We find that historically male-biased sex ratios forged a culture of male violence, help avoidance, and self-harm that persists to the present day in Australia. While our experimental setting is unique, we believe that our findings can inform the debate about the long-term socioeconomic consequences and risks of skewed sex ratios in many developing countries such as China, India, and parts of the Middle East. In these settings, sex-selective abortion and mortality as well as the cultural relegation and seclusion of women have created societies with highly skewed sex ratios. Our results suggest that the masculinity norms that develop as a result may not only be detrimental to (future generations of) men themselves but can also have important repercussions for other groups in society, in particular women and sexual minorities.

Our findings also align with an extensive psychological and medical literature that connects traditional masculinity norms to an unwillingness among men to seek timely medical help or to engage in preventive health care and protective health measures (e.g. Himmelstein and Sanchez (2016) and Salgado et al. (2016)). This suggests that voluntary observance of health measures, such as social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, may be considerably lower among men who adhere to traditional masculinity norms.



Akerlof, George A., and Rachel E. Kranton (2000), Economics and Identity, Quarterly Journal of Economics 115(3), 715–753.

Baranov, Victoria, Ralph De Haas and Pauline Grosjean (2020), Men. Roots and Consequences of Masculinity Norms, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 14493, London.

Giuliano, Paola (2018), Gender: A Historical Perspective, The Oxford Handbook of Women and the Economy, Ed. Susan Averett, Laura Argys and Saul Hoffman. Oxford University Press, New York.

Grosjean, Pauline, and Rose Khattar (2019), It’s Raining Men! Hallelujah? The Long-Run Consequences of Male-Biased Sex Ratios, The Review of Economic Studies, 86(2), 723–754.

Himmelstein, M.S. and D.T. Sanchez (2016), Masculinity Impediments: Internalized Masculinity Contributes to Healthcare Avoidance in Men and Women, Journal of Health Psychology, 21, 1283–1292.

Mahalik, J.R., B.D. Locke, L.H. Ludlow, M.A. Diemer, R.P.J. Scott, M. Gottfried, and G. Freitas (2003), Development of the Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory, Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 4(1), 3–25.

Salgado, D.M., A.L. Knowlton, and B.L. Johnson (2019), Men’s Health-Risk and Protective Behaviors: The Effects of Masculinity and Masculine Norms, Psychology of Men & Masculinities, 20(2), 266–275.

WHO (2013), Review of Social Determinants and the Health Divide in the WHO European Region, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe, Copenhagen.



Ralph De Haas, a Dutch national, is the Director of Research at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in London. He is also a part-time Associate Professor of Finance at Tilburg University, a CEPR Research Fellow, a Fellow at the European Banking Center, a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Institute of Global Affairs at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a Research Associate at the ZEW–Leibniz Centre for European Economic Research. Ralph earned a PhD in economics from Utrecht University and is the recipient of the 2014 Willem F. Duisenberg Fellowship Prize. He has published in the Journal of Financial Economics; Review of Financial Studies; Review of Finance; Journal of International Economics, American Economic Journal: Applied Economics; the Journal of the European Economic Association and various other peer-reviewed journals. Ralph’s research interests include global banking, development finance and financial intermediation more broadly. He is currently working on randomized controlled trials related to financial inclusion in Morocco and Turkey.

Twitter: @ralphdehaas 


Pauline Grosjean is a Professor in the School of Economics at UNSW. Previously at the University of San Francisco and the University of California at Berkeley, she has also worked as an Economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. She completed her PhD in economics at Toulouse School in Economics in 2006 after graduating from the Ecole Normale Supérieure. Her research studies the historical and dynamic context of economic development. In particular, she focuses on how culture and institutions interact and shape long-term economic development and individual behavior. She has published research that studies the historical process of a wide range of factors that are crucial for economic development, including cooperation and violence, trust, gender norms, support for democracy and for market reforms, immigration, preferences for education, and conflict.


Victoria Baranov’s research explores how health, psychological factors, and norms interact with poverty and economic development. Her recent work has focused on maternal depression and its implications for the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage. Her work has been published in the American Economic Review, American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, the Journal of Health Economics and other peer-reviewed journals across multiple disciplines.  Victoria received her PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago after graduating from Barnard College.  She is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Economics Department at the University of Melbourne and has affiliations with the Centre for Market Design, the Life Course Centre, and the Institute of Labor Studies (IZA).

Twitter: @VictoriaBaranov

“Where women are respected, there flourishes civilization.” – Historical antecedents of #MeToo.

by Jane Humphries (All Souls College, Oxford, and London School of Economics)

“Il me semblait, docteur, que c’était dans le dos qu’on écoutait” (“It seemed to me, Doctor, that it was in the back we listened”). Engraving by Jules Renard, 1880s.

Sexual harassment was probably as common and as debilitating for past generations of women as for us in the world of #MeToo.  The threat of sexual predation has long limited women and girls’ capabilities in the sense of what they could do or could be.[1]  It has constrained choice of jobs and security at work as well as threatened wellbeing more generally.  Here evidence of sexual harassment and the anxiety it created are extracted from working women’s life accounts and shown to have entrenched economic discrimination and gender subordination.

Mary Saxby’s peripatetic life was punctuated by a series of encounters ranging from harassment to rape.  While her vagrancy left her particularly exposed to predation, she was clearly vulnerable even when in prison.[2]  Other women were similarly at risk when going about their legitimate business.  Christian Watt reported that ‘[F]ishwives were often attacked both for money and carnal knowledge’ and armed herself with a gutting knife for self-defence.[3] Both working and getting to work created anxieties:  girls in the Hodgson family faced a long walk to the mill where they worked. ‘It was dark when we went and dark going home … we three girls didn’t like it, and Mother didn’t like us having to do it either’.[4]

Ironically, given its status as a proper employment for women and girls, domestic service entailed particular vulnerability.  Christian Watt related a common type of encounter: ‘One morning while giving a hand to make the beds … a Captain Leslie Melville put his arms around me and embraced me. I dug my claws into his face and with all the force I could I tore for all I was worth; his journey into flirtation land cost him the skin of his nose’.[5]   For less forceful characters it was better not to run into such dangerous situations.

Masher Menace. Available at <;

As today, girls without parental protection were particularly vulnerable.  Ellen Johnston the ‘factory poetess’, who had an illegitimate child while in her teens hints several times at abuse by her stepfather.[6] Sally Marcroft was impregnated by the son of a weaver with whom she was boarded as an orphaned pauper.[7] Lucy Luck, on graduating from the workhouse, was found a job where she was constantly preyed upon:  ‘Well, we reached St Albans at last, and the place of service [the poor law officer] had found for me was a public house … The mistress was very good to me but the master was one of the worst who walked God’s earth.  Always fighting with his wife … and he would beat that woman shamefully … But that was not the worst of him. That man … did all he could, time after time, to try and ruin me, a poor orphan only fifteen years old.[8] Even more appalling, Emma Smith, a Cornish waif who grew up partly in the workhouse and partly in her maternal grandparents’ home, was given by her mother to a hurdy- gurdy man who abused her continuously for years: “This beast — old enough to be my grandfather — grabbed hold of me, a child of about six years of age, if I was that. He undid some of my clothing and behaved in a disgusting way”.[9]  Few suffered such horrendous, and in Emma’s case life-impacting, abuse but fear of assault was common and had significant effects on what girls were able to do and to be.

Workplaces where the sexes mixed were widely regarded as promoting immorality and prudent girls shunned such exposure.[10]  Similarly, agricultural fieldwork was judged damaging once girls reached puberty whereupon it became more respectable to withdraw to indoor activities.  Thus Jane Bowden was a boarded and then bound out apprentice aged 9 and ‘…[A]t the beginning part of my time I was employed in out-door work…..when I was about 16 I was kept entirely to the house, except at harvest time’.[11]  Service in public houses could also bring girls into bad company and threaten reputations.  Hannah Cullwick obtained a place at the Lion Hotel but her father ‘thought it was not good for me at a public house and I was to give warning’. [12]  Remember, Lucy Luck was consigned to this disreputable work: ‘What did it matter? I was only a drunkard’s child. But if they had found me a good place for a start, things might have been better for me’.[13]

 As these cases make clear, the need for circumspection in the face of potential predation and threats to reputation, made negotiating the world of work especially difficult.  Not surprisingly, girls retreated into the ghetto of jobs where respectability was easier to retain and virtue to defend.  Girls found it difficult to support themselves on the incomes they could earn and frequently remained partially dependent on fathers or the state, a foretaste of their situation as married women where the meta division of labour enforced women’s unpaid work in the home and men’s breadwinning.  Dependent on men, women and girls’ lost self-esteem and lacked voice even within the household.  A vicious circle eroding female capabilities was completed.


Original quote in the title by A.Naskar

To contact the author:




[1] The ‘capabilities approach’ to wellbeing originated in the work of Amartya Sen, see ‘Gender and Cooperative Conflicts’, in Irene Tinker(ed.) Persistent inequalities: Women and world development (New York, Oxford University Press, 1990).  For further discussion see B. Agarwal, et al, Amartya Sen’s work and ideas.  A gender perspective (London, Routledge, 2005).

[2] M. Saxby, Memoirs of a female vagrant written by herself (London, J. Burditt, 1806).

[3] C. Watt, The Christian Watt papers (Edinburgh, Birlinn, 1988), 36.

[4] A. Hughes, nee Hodgson,‘Unpublished autobiography’, Brunel, 5.

[5] Watt, Christian Watt papers, 57.

[6] E. Johnston, Autobiography of Ellen Johnston, ‘The Factory Girl’, in Four nineteenth-century working-class autobiographies, edited by James R. Simmons Jr., and introduced by Janice Carlisle (Toronto, Broadview Press, 2007).

[7] W. Marcroft, The Marcroft family (London, John Heywood, 1886) 21.

[8] L. Luck, ‘A little of my life’, The London Mercury, 76 (1926) 354-373.


[9] [E. Smith], A Cornish waif’s story (London, Odham’s Press, 1954) 31.

[10]  J. Humphries, ‘Protective Legislation, the Capitalist State and Working-Class Men: The Case of the 1842 Mines Regulation Act’, Feminist Review, No. 7, Spring 1981, 1–35; J. Humphries, ‘“The Most Free from Objection…”, The Sexual Division of Labour and Women’s Work in Nineteenth Century England’, Journal of Economic History, Vol. XLVII, No. 4, December 1987, 929–950.

[11] J. Bowden, Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture, Parliamentary Papers, Vol. XII, 1843, 113.

[12] H. Cullwick, The diaries of Hannah Cullwick (London, Virago, 1984), 36.

[13] Luck, ‘A little’, 365.



Demographic shocks and women’s labour market participation: evidence from the 1918 influenza pandemic in India

by James Fenske, Bishnupriya Gupta and Song Yuan (University of Warwick)

This research will be presented during the EHS Annual Conference in Belfast, April 5th – 7th 2019. Conference registration can be found on the EHS website.



Women washing clothes at the Sabarmati river, Ahmedabad. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Women’s labour force participation is an important driver of economic development and gender equality. Historically, India has had low female participation in economic activities outside the home. Researchers have cited early marriage, social conservatism and limited comparative advantage of women in certain types of agriculture among the potential explanations.

Despite economic growth, female labour force participation has fallen in recent years, generating several important studies. Our research, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference, considers the response of female labour force participation to one major demographic shock – the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Past studies have looked at the wartime mortality of men as a demographic shock affecting the total supply of labour, and have found that this affects women’s labour market participation. The empirical evidence of other types of demographic shock due to epidemics is more limited.

Our research focuses on India and aims to understand the impact of the large-scale demographic shock that was the 1918 influenza pandemic, in the context of a society in which female labour market participation had typically been low due to cultural norms.

From 1918 to 1919, a deadly influenza epidemic hit India, and caused more than 13 million deaths, equivalent to 5% of the population. In contrast to typical epidemics, which are disproportionally deadly to immunologically weak individuals such as infants and the very old, this epidemic primarily caused deaths among young adults between the ages of 20 and 40.

The mortality rate varied greatly across districts, ranging from 1.4% to 17.9% of the population in our sample. We focus on three questions: did the 1918 influenza pandemic increase or decrease female employment? If so, why? Was this effect persistent?

To answer these questions, we combine detailed district-level historical census data on occupations by gender from 1901 to 1931 with data from multiple sources on influenza mortality, marital statuses by age and gender, and wages.

Using an event-study approach, we find that a 1% increase in the mortality rate raised the female labour force participation rate by 1.2% in 1921 and the change was concentrated in the service sector. But this was transitory, disappearing by 1931. By contrast, the pandemic did not affect the labour force participation of men at either the district or district-by-sector level.

How do we explain the labour market effects of the pandemic? Possible causal channels will have affected either the supply of or the demand for female labour. One possible channel is that the death of men increased the share of widows in the population. As household income was generally earned by men, widows were pushed to participate in the labour market in order to mitigate the negative economic shock.

On the other hand, the rise in the proportion of widowers had no impact on male labour force participation, as most men worked before the disaster, whether widowed or not. In addition, the pandemic led to a shortage of labour, potentially increasing wages, inducing women out of the home and into the labour force.

Our findings provide evidence that negative demographic shocks alter the working behaviour of women, at least in the short run. In contrast with previous research on events such as the slave trade and the two world wars, which have considered sex-biased demographic shocks, we show that shocks that are not sex-based can also play a role in determining female employment. Further, it enables us to understand the historical dynamics and determinants of female economic and social status in India.


Girl-power generates superstars in long-term development: evidence from fifteenth to nineteenth century Europe

by Joerg Baten (University of Tübingen) and Alexandra de Pleijt (University of Oxford)

This research will be presented during the EHS Annual Conference in Belfast, April 5th – 7th 2019. Conference registration can be found on the EHS website.



What are the crucial ingredients for success or failure of economies in long-term perspective? Is female autonomy one of the critical factors?


Map of Europe, by Abraham Ortelius. Available on Wikimedia Commons.

A number of development economists have found that gender inequality was associated with slower development (Sen, 1990; Klasen and Lamanna, 2009; Gruen and Klasen, 2008). This resulted in development policies targeted specifically at women. In 2005, for example, the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan stated that gender equality is a prerequisite for eliminating poverty, reducing infant mortality and reaching universal education (United Nations, 2005).

In recent periods, however, a number of doubts have been made public by development economists. Duflo (2012) suggests that there is no automatic effect of gender equality on poverty reduction, citing a number of studies. The causal direction from poverty to gender inequality might be at least as strong as the opposite direction, according to this view.

For an assessment of the direction of causality in long-term perspective, consistent data had not been available until now. Due to this lack of evidence, the link between female autonomy and human capital formation in early modern Europe has not yet been formally tested in a dynamic model (for Eastern Europe, see Baten et al, 2017; and see de Pleijt et al, 2016, for a cross-section).

De Moor and van Zanden (2010) have put forward the hypothesis that female autonomy had a strong influence on European history, basing their argument on a historical description of labour markets and the legacy of medieval institutions. They argue that female marriage ages, among other components of demographic behaviour, might have been a crucial factor for early development in northwestern European countries (for a critique, especially on endogeneity issues, see Dennison and Ogilvie 2014 and 2016; reply: Carmichael et al, 2016).

In a similar vein, Diebolt and Perrin (2013) argue, theoretically, that gender inequality retarded modern economic growth in many countries.

In a new study, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference, we directly assess the growth effects of female autonomy in a dynamic historical context.

Given the obviously crucial role of endogeneity issues in this debate, we carefully consider the causal nature of the relationship. More specifically, we exploit relatively exogenous variation of (migration adjusted) lactose tolerance and pasture suitability as instrumental variables for female autonomy.

The idea is that a high lactose tolerance increased the demand for dairy farming, whereas similarly, a high share of land suitable for pasture farming allowed more supply. In dairy farming, women traditionally had a strong role; this allowed them to participate substantially in income generation during the late medieval and early modern period (Voigtländer and Voth, 2013).

In contrast, female participation was limited in grain farming, as it requires substantial upper-body strength (Alesina et al, 2013). Hence, the genetic factor of lactose tolerance and pasture suitability influences long-term differences in gender-specific agricultural specialisation.

In instrumental variable regressions, we show that the relationship between female autonomy (age at marriage) and human capital (numeracy) is likely to be causal. More specifically, we use two different datasets: the first is a panel dataset of European countries from 1500 to 1850, which covers a long time horizon.

Second, we study 268 regions in Europe, stretching from the Ural Mountains in the east to Spain in the southwest and the UK in the northwest. Our results are robust to the inclusion of a large number of control variables and different specifications of the model.

In sum, our empirical results suggest that economies with more female autonomy became (or remained) superstars in economic development. The female part of the population needed to contribute to overall human capital formation and prosperity, otherwise the competition with other economies was lost.

Institutions that excluded women from developing human capital – such as being married early, and hence, often dropping out of independent, skill-demanding economic activities – prevented many economies from being successful in human history.




Alesina, A, P Giuliano and N Nunn (2013) ‘On the Origins of Gender Roles: Women and the Plough’, Quarterly Journal of Economics 128(2): 469-530.

Baten, J, and AM de Pleijt (2018) ‘Girl Power Generates Superstars in Long-term Development: Female Autonomy and Human Capital Formation in Early Modern Europe’, CEPR Working Paper.

Baten, J, M Szoltysek and M Camestrini (2017) ‘Girl Power’ in Eastern Europe? The Human Capital Development of Central-Eastern and Eastern Europe in the Seventeenth to Nineteenth Century and its Determinants’, European Review of Economic History 21(1): 29-63.

Carmichael, SG, AM de Pleijt, JL van Zanden and T de Moor (2016) ‘The European Marriage Pattern and its Measurement’, Journal of Economic History 76(1): 196-204.

Carmichael, SG, S Dilli and A Rijpma (2014) ‘Gender Inequality since 1820’, in How Was Life? Global Well-being since 1820 edited by JL van Zanden, J Baten, M Mira d’Hercole, A Rijpma, C Smith and M Timmer, OECD.

De Moor, T, and JL 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’, Economic History Review 63(1): 1-33.

De Pleijt, AM, JL van Zanden and SG Carmichael (2016) ‘Gender Relations and Economic Development: Hypotheses about the Reversal of Fortune in EurAsia’, Centre for Global Economic History (CGEH) Working Paper Series No. 79

Dennison, T, and S Ogilvie (2014) ‘Does the European Marriage Pattern Explain Economic Growth?’, Journal of Economic History 74(3): 651-93.

Dennison, T, and S Ogilvie (2016) ‘Institutions, Demography and Economic Growth’, Journal of Economic History 76(1): 205-17.

Diebolt, C, and F Perrin (2013) ‘From Stagnation to Sustained Growth: The Role of Female Empowerment’, American Economic Review: Papers and Proceedings 103: 545-49.

Duflo, E (2012) ‘Women Empowerment and Economic Development’, Journal of Economic Literature 50(4): 1051-79.

Gruen, C, and S Klasen (2008) ‘Growth, Inequality, and Welfare: Comparisons across Space and Time’, Oxford Economic Papers 60: 212-36.

Hanushek, EA, and L Woessmann (2012) ‘Do Better Schools Lead to More Growth? Cognitive Skills, Economic Outcomes, and Causation’, Journal of Economic Growth 17(4): 267-321.

Kelly, M, J Mokyr and C Ó Gráda (2013) ‘Precocious Albion: A New Interpretation of the British Industrial Revolution’, UCD Centre for Economic Research Working Paper Series No. 13/11.

Klasen, S, and F Lamanna (2009) ‘The Impact of Gender Inequality in Education and Employment on Economic Growth: New Evidence for a Panel of Countries’, Feminist Economics 15(3): 91-132.

Robinson, JA (2009) ‘Botswana as a Role Model for Country Success’, UNU WIDER Research Paper No. 2009/40.

Sen, A (1990) ‘More than 100 million women are missing’, New York Review of Books, 20 December: 61-66.

United Nations (2005) Progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, 1990-2005, Secretary-General’s Millennium Development Goals Report.

Voigtländer, N, and H-J Voth (2013) ‘How the West ‘Invented’ Fertility Restriction’, American Economic Review 103(6): 2227-64.

Censuses and the work women really did: case studies 1720-1920

by Amy Erickson (University of Cambridge)

This research will be presented during the EHS Annual Conference in Belfast, April 5th – 7th 2019. Conference registration can be found on the EHS website.


Women workers Woolwich Arsenal 1917 London. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Museums and popular histories typically repeat the idea that women only entered the labour market in large numbers in the twentieth century. In fact, in the first British census that can be analysed for paid employment in 1851, more than 40% of all women reported regular paid employment. They contributed nearly one third of all hours in the paid economy. Participation rates were probably even higher before mechanisation.

The occupational structure of men in the past has recently been explored as a key to understanding economic development. But national data on women’s work are not available until the advent of censuses in the nineteenth century.

A set of studies to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference makes uses of censuses and alternative sources – focusing on eighteenth century Europe, nineteenth century textiles, the 1881 British census and twentieth century Canada – to demonstrate the formative role of women’s labour contribution to economic development.

Professor Carmen Sarasua (Autonomous University of Barcelona) points out that the most important feature of the European economy in this period was the rapid spread of manufacturing, organised on a domestic basis in the eighteenth century and in mechanised factories in the nineteenth century. Domestic industry did not always evolve into industrialisation in the same places, but long before the advent of factories, manufacturing relied on the labour of women and children.

Most analyses of occupational change as an indicator of economic development consider only male occupations, which show heavily agricultural societies, but when women’s occupations from tax registers are included, manufacturing is roughly equivalent to agriculture by the later eighteenth century. This means that manufacturing was important long before we currently think it was, and long before the application of new technology.

For centuries, textiles were the largest manufacturing industry in most European countries, and women dominated that labour force. Professor Manuela Martini (University of Lyon) focuses on Lyon, which was the most important silk-producing city in Europe in the nineteenth century.

She compares population censuses, which often omitted details of women’s occupations, with trade union and administrative sources on silk workers’ wages, to understand the occupational distinctions at the level of tasks performed by men and women, establishing a vocabulary with which to compare textile trades internationally.

Dr Xuesheng You (Cambridge University) presents the first detailed evidence from British censuses showing there were wide geographical variations in female labour force participation rates and in the sectoral distribution of female employment between agriculture, manufacturing and services. Factors such as age, marital status and number of children were relatively insignificant compared with the demands of the local economy. In other words, if work was available, women took it, regardless of their household situation.

Dr Keith Sugden (Cambridge University) and Professor Roger Sugden (University of British Columbia) find that in a fast-growing agricultural area of Western Canada, early twentieth century censuses recorded almost no married women’s employment, while for men and single women, they provided the occupation, wage, and number of weeks worked in the previous year.

But in an area dominated by small family farms many if not all married women would have been employed in market-oriented production on the farm even if they did not receive a wage. Sugden and Sugden propose ways to quantify the value of married women’s ‘hidden’ economic contribution.

So censuses may or may not record women’s work consistently. But other sources show high levels of labour force participation and demand-led employment, placing women’s labour at the centre of the growth of manufacturing and services that characterises economic development.

The gender division of labour in early modern England: why study women’s work?

by Jane Whittle (University of Exeter) and Mark Hailwood (University of Bristol)

This article is published by The Economic History Review, and it is available on the EHS website.


Interior with an Old Woman at the Spinning Wheel. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Here are ten reasons to know more about women’s work and read our article on ‘The gender division of labour in early modern England’. We have collected evidence about work tasks in order to quantify the differences between women’s and men’s work in the period from 1500-1700. This research allows us to dispel some common misconceptions.


  1. Men did most of the work didn’t they? This is unlikely, when both paid and unpaid work are counted, modern time-use studies show that women do the majority of work – 55% of rural areas of developing countries and 51% in modern industrial countries (UN Human Development report 1995). There is no reason why the pattern would have been markedly different in preindustrial England.
  2. But we know about occupational structure in the past don’t we? Documents from the medieval period onwards describe men by their occupations, but women by their marital status. As a result we know quite a lot about male occupations but very little about women’s.
  3. But women worked in households headed by their father, husband or employer. Surely, if we know what these men did, then we know what women were doing too? Recent research undertaken by Amy Erickson, Alex Shepard and Jane Whittle shows that married women often had different occupations from their husbands. If we do not know what women did, we are missing an important part of the economy.
  4. But we have evidence of women working for wages. It shows that around 20% of agricultural workers were women, surely this demonstrates that women’s work wasn’t as important as men’s in the wider economy? This evidence only relates to labourers paid by the day, and before 1700 most agricultural labour was not carried out by day labourers, so this isn’t a very good measure. Our article shows that women carried out a third of agricultural work tasks, not 20%.
  5. But women mostly did domestic stuff – cooking, housework and childcare – didn’t they, and that type of work doesn’t change much across history? Women did do most cooking, housework and childcare, but our research suggests it did not take up the majority of their working time. These forms of work did change markedly over time. A third of early modern housework took place outside, and our data suggests the majority was done for other households, not as unpaid work for one’s own family.
  6. But women only worked in a narrow range occupations, didn’t they? Our research shows that women worked in all the major sectors of the economy, but often doing slightly different tasks from men. They undertook a third of work tasks in agriculture, around half of the work in everyday commerce and almost two thirds of work tasks in textile production. But women also did forms of work we might not expect, such as shearing sheep, dealing in second-hand iron, and droving cattle.
  7. Women’s work was all low skilled wasn’t it? Women very rarely benefitted from formal apprenticeship in the way that men did, but that does not mean the tasks they undertook were unskilled. Women undertook many tasks, such as making lace and providing medical care, which required a great deal of skill.
  8. But this was all in the past, what relevance does it have now? Many gendered patterns of work are remarkably persistent over time. Analysis by the Office of National Statistics states that one third of the gender pay gap in modern Britain can be explained by men and women working in different occupations, and by the lower rates of pay for part-time work, which is more commonly undertaken by women than men.
  9. So nothing ever changes …? Well, not necessarily. In fact looking carefully at patterns of women’s work in the past shows some noticeably shifts over time. For instance, women worked as tailors and weavers in the medieval period and in the eighteenth century, but not in the sixteenth century.
  10. But we know why women work differently from men, particularly in preindustrial societies – isn’t it because they are less physically strong and all the child-bearing stuff? Physical strength does not explain why women did some physically taxing forms of work and not others (why they walked for miles carrying heavy loads on their heads rather than driving carts). And not all women were married or had children. Neither physical strength nor child-bearing can explain why women were excluded from tailoring between 1500 and 1650, but worked successfully and skilfully in this and other closely related crafts in other periods.

We now have data which allows us to look more carefully at these issues, but there is still much more to uncover.


To contact Jane Whittle:, Twitter: @jcwhittle1

To contact Mark Hailwood:, Twitter: @mark_hailwood

Perpetuating the family name: female inheritance, in-marriage and gender norms

by Duman Bahrami-Rad (Simon Fraser University)

Tartanspartan: Muslim wedding, Lahore, Pakistan — Frank Horvat, 1952. Available on Pinterest <;

Why is it so common for Muslims to marry their cousins (more than 30% of all marriages in the Middle East)? Why, despite explicit injunctions in the Quran to include women in inheritance, do women in the Middle East generally face unequal gender relations, and their labour force participation remain the lowest in the world (less than 20%)?

This study presents a theory, supported by empirical evidence, concerning the historical origins of such marriage and gender norms. It argues that in patrilineal societies that nevertheless mandate female inheritance, cousin marriage becomes a way to preserve property in the male line and prevent fragmentation of land.

In these societies, female inheritance also leads to the seclusion and veiling of women as well as restrictions on their sexual freedom in order to encourage cousin marriages and avoid out-of-wedlock children as potential heirs. The incompatibility of such restrictions with female participation in agriculture has further influenced the historical gender division of labour.

Analyses of data on pre-industrial societies, Italian provinces, and women in Indonesia show that female inheritance, consistent with these hypotheses, is associated with lower female labour participation, greater stress on female virginity before marriage and higher rates of endogamy, consanguinity and arranged marriages.

The study also uses the recent reform of inheritance regulations in India – which greatly enhanced Indian women’s right to inherit property – to provide further evidence of the causal impact of female inheritance. The analysis shows that among women affected by the reform, the rate of cousin marriage is significantly higher, and that of premarital sex significantly lower.

The implications of these findings are important. It is believed that cousin marriage helps create and maintain kinship groups such as tribes and clans, which impair the development of an individualistic social psychology, undermine social trust, large-scale cooperation and democratic institutions, and encourage corruption and conflict.

This study contributes to this literature by highlighting a historical origin of clannish social organisation. It also sheds light on the origins of gender inequality as both a human rights issues and a development issue.