Women’s work and structural change: occupational structure in eighteenth-century Spain

by Carmen Sarasua (Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona)

The full paper was published on The Economic History Review, and is available here


Screen Shot 2019-06-10 at 19.14.12This research uses householders’ declarations in the Cadaster of Ensenada to calculate labour participation rates for women and men in inland Spain. Conducted between 1750 and 1755, the Cadaster was a general property survey carried out with the aim of modernizing and unifying the fiscal system of the Kingdom of Castile (about three-quarters of modern Spain). Most householders did not declare the occupations of wives or children because their wages were not taxed. In some towns, householders did declare the occupations of their wives and children:

I belong to the General estate, my trade fuller, married, my family is formed by myself, 46 years old, Ynés López Zamorano, 40 years old. I have four daughters, Agustina, 20, her occupation weaver, Isabel, 13, her occupation spinning, María, 11, her occupation going to sewing school, María Teresa, 2 months.

Based on a database currently comprising 44,484 individuals (the population of 22 localities in five provinces of southern Castile), this article shows that men’s participation rates ranged from 78.2 to 92.5 percent. Generally, men’s participation rates were lower in large towns and cities because these localities were home to nonworking members of the nobility, beggars, and monks.

The article also establishes that the actual levels of women’s market activity were much higher than is commonly assumed. For the entire region, women’s participation rate was 32.3 percent. Differences in participation rates among localities were much larger for women than for men, ranging from 12.4 percent in Pedro Muñoz to 82.7 per cent in Villamanrique. Such large differences are explained by the failure to record women’s work. Ajofrín, in Toledo, was a prosperous production centre for woolen fabrics, with a population of 3,308 in 1753. According to householders’ declarations, 82.4 percent of men and 25.3 percent of women were gainfully employed. However, in response to a Cadaster question about the number of poor people living there, the town council responded, ‘Only eight, as everybody is devoted to the work of wool, particularly women, even the oldest ones.’

The Cadaster permits analysis of the region’s deeply gendered occupational structure. The primary sector occupied 60.0 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively, of working-age men and women. Men’s primary-sector employment was lower in towns, while women’s presence in the primary sector ranged from zero in some localities to 35.3 percent in regions where flax cultivation was important.

The service sector occupied 16.4 percent and 34.4 percent, respectively, of working men and women. Domestic service was especially important accounting for 84.4 per cent of women and 17.8 percent of men. For women, domestic service correlated with the size of town and the number of households headed by priests. For men, service occupations were more diversified, and included transportation and retailing.

The most important results from my research involve the industrial sector. The labour-intensity of manufacturing together with the abundant supply of cheap labour, the diffusion of cottage industries, and the demand for commodities (particularly textiles) from internal and colonial markets, meant a large portion of the region’s population worked in manufactures in the eighteenth century. This sector occupied 23.6 percent of working men and 62.8 percent of working women.

Table 1. Occupational distribution of women and men, 18th century inland Spain. For sources, access full article here

The unusually high share of men in industry is explained by the recruiting practices of royal factories. Women’s stronger presence in manufacturing was explained by contemporary observers as follows:

The trade that people from La Mancha carry out, within the court, of stockings, bonnets, knitted socks, girdles and garters is from their mills. The merchant associations do not agree with this freedom.

The importance of these products is largely unnoticed in the academic literature which suggests they were consumed by families. But a range of finished products made by women — stockings, lace, scarfs, bonnets, knitted socks, girdles, garters, bedspreads, ribbons, and edging – were destined for the market. Householders’ declarations indicate that women’s textile work was motivated by the need to obtain food and to support the family.

According to the 1877 census, 66.1 percent of the Spanish labour force was engaged in agriculture compared to 14.4 percent in industry. Agriculture was the principal employer until 1930. Standard interpretations of economic growth view a large share of agricultural employment as an indicator of economic backwardness. But such analyses tend to focus only on the structural decomposition of the male labour force. By incorporating women’s work my research develops historical analyses of structural change. My findings are consistent with recent literature that in many European regions non-agricultural employment followed a U-shaped curve.

La Mancha failed to industrialize in the nineteenth century. The invasion of the Napoleonic army in 1808 and the subsequent war led to widespread destruction of sheep flocks and infrastructure, abandonment of agricultural lands, inflation, and severe demographic crisis. National and international commercial networks were disrupted generating a substantial increase in the price of imports. Subsequently, the share of the labour force in agriculture grew. Following the mechanization of textile production thousands of women and girls lost their jobs. Manufacturing employment fell across the country, even in the regions that industrialized. Women found fewer employment opportunities in the countryside, and many eventually moved to the cities to work in domestic service. Only by considering women workers is it possible to understand when, where, why, and how this structural change happened.


To contact the author: carmen.sarasua@uab.es

Recurring growth without industrialisation: occupational structures in northern Nigeria, 1921-2006

by Emiliano Travieso (University of Cambridge)


InStove factory workers in Nigeria. Available at <http://www.instove.org/node/59&gt;

Despite recent decades of economic growth, absolute poverty is on the rise in Nigeria, as population increases continue to outpace the reduction in poverty rates. Manufacturing industries, which have the potential to absorb large numbers of workers into better paying jobs, have expanded only very modestly, and most workers remain employed in low productivity sectors (such as the informal urban economy and subsistence agriculture). 

 This scenario is particularly stark in the northern states, which concentrate more than half of the national population and where poverty rates are at their highest. As the largest region of the most populated nation in the continent (and itself three times as large as any other West African country), quantifying and qualifying northern Nigerias past economic development is crucial in order to discuss the perspectives for structural change and poverty alleviation in sub-Saharan Africa.  

 My research traces the major shifts in the economy of northern Nigeria during and since colonial rule through a detailed study of occupational structures, based on colonial and independence-era censuses and other primary sources. 

 While the region has a long history of handicraft production – under the nineteenth-century Sokoto Caliphate it became the largest textile producer in sub-Saharan Africa – northern Nigeria deindustrialised during British indirect rule. Partially as a result of the expansion of export agriculture (mainly of groundnuts and, to a lesser extent, cotton), the share of the workforce in manufacturing decreased from 18% to 7% in the last four decades of the colonial period. 

 After independence in 1960, growth episodes were led by transport, urban services and government expenditure fuelled by oil transfers from the southeast of the country, but did not spur significant structural change in favour of manufacturing. By 2006, the share of the workforce in manufacturing had risen only slightly: to 8%. 

 In global economic history, poverty alleviation has often resulted from a previous period of systematic movement of labour from low- to high-productivity sectors. The continued expansion of manufacturing achieved just that during the Industrial Revolution in the West and, in the twentieth century, in many parts of the Global South. 

 In large Asian and Latin American economies, late industrialisation sustained impressive achievements in terms of job creation and poverty alleviation. In cases such as Brazil, Mexico and China, large domestic markets, fast urbanisation and improvements in education contributed decisively to lifting millions of people out of poverty. 

Can northern Nigeria, with its large population, deep historical manufacturing roots and access to the largest national market in Africa, develop into a late industrialiser in the twenty-first century? My study suggests that rapid demographic growth will not necessarily result in structural change, but that, through improved market integration and continued expansion of education, the economy could harness the skills and energy of its rising population to produce a more impressive expansion of manufacturing than we have yet seen.