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How Women Made the West Rich – a lesson from economic history

A blog by Dr Victoria Bateman on women's freedom and economic prosperity.

Victoria Bateman

How did Britain – a tiny little island off the edge of Europe – propel itself forward, from being a mere backwater to global civilisation, to become the most prosperous country in the world by the nineteenth century? It’s a question that is incredibly difficult to answer given that for millenia, all of the interesting action had been taking place well beyond Europe: in China, the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia. Not only was Britain a backwater, so was Europe. Britain was a backwater to a backwater. Whilst other parts of the world were developing new technologies, the written word, mathematics and medicine, Brits were running around chasing animals. And it’s a question that has become even more difficult to answer in the last few years as our understanding of the past has gone global: as we’ve dug not only deeper into history but struck comparisons that span the globe. It’s put to bed many popular explanations of Britain’s economic rise, simply because features that we’d previously thought to be unique to Britain could also be found elsewhere in the world, and elsewhere in history.

Growing up in Manchester in the 1980s, a city that was at the centre of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, it was a question I began to ponder from a young age. My grandmother bombarded me with stories of an age that was by then rapidly vanishing – and, of course, of the difficult lives of my female ancestors, most of whom worked in cotton mills. But when I took to the books to find out why the Industrial Revolution happened here in Britain, I found accounts almost purely of men – of the famous male engineers, entrepreneurs, scientists and inventors cast into bronze statues, basking in the sunshine in the centre of our big cities. People like Isaac Newton, James Watt, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Richard Arkwright. It left me wondering: where were the women that I knew from my own family stories had been so central to the story of the Industrial Revolution? And what about the generations of women before them who, unlike those in many poor countries today, seem to have had a much greater degree of freedom than popular narratives would have us believe? Why was all of the focus on mens lives when what seemed to me to be the greatest difference between “the West and the rest” was womens lives – womens freedom?

The answer is, of course, simple. Women are too often seen merely as passive beneficiaries of economic growth – as the people who should be forever thankful to their male ancestors for creating the riches that enabled womens rights to flourish. In giving advice to todays poorer countries, we imagine that the economy comes first and then womens rights follow. We imagine that by targeting economic growth, everything else will follow. As I explain in my new book, The Sex Factor: How Women Made the West Rich, its time to see things the other way around: it’s time to see women as active creators not passive beneficiaries. Women’s freedom needs to come first not last.

Women’s freedom is the elephant in the room when it comes to explaining how a small country like Britain was able to escape poverty and become a global economic leader. Whilst womens freedom was by no means perfect, it was superior to much of the rest of the world, and indeed to many poorer countries today, giving the West an advantage that was difficult to beat.

So, on the eve of Britains economic rise, where did women stand? Well, it was common for women to work in the labour market. And, unlike most poor countries today, they didnt marry until their mid-twenties (the average age of first marriage for British women in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was 25 or 26 years old), and, when they did marry, it was after choosing their own partner, and they set up home separately to their parents in law.

Because women had greater independence and married later in life, families were, as a result, smaller and that helped to prevent population growth from getting out of control. That in turn meant wages were higher than would have otherwise been the case, which encouraged businesses to mechanise production rather than to rely on an endless supply of cheap workers. 

The smaller better off families also had other advantages: they had more resources to invest in their children’s skills, and could better afford to save, providing a growing skill base alongside funds for investment.

And the fact that you lived your own independent life, rather than one arranged for you and commanded by your family, created an incentive to work hard and be entrepreneurial. After all, you were expected to make your own way in the world rather than to be within the fold of a more traditional extended family: so, no sex, and no personal life, without doing so first. Whilst Max Weber famously puts this work ethic down to protestantism, I instead attribute it to women’s freedom and the way that transformed family life.

Smaller more nuclear families, in comparison with extended kinship groups that can better provide for themselves, also meant that people needed to build trust outside of the family unit, thereby building the “social capital” foundations needed both for commercial exchange and for the development of a capable state. Women’s freedom was, therefore, at the root of both the development of markets and the state, and helped the two to work in unison, including through the early emergence of a welfare state that supported elderly care, thereby aiding women’s geographic mobility and labour force participation.

Finally, womens freedom aided democracy. Where families are patriarchal we are taught to respect authority. Rather than speak up, we shut up.  In more gender equal families, we get used to having a say, to forming an opinion through discussion and debate, and to holding others to account. We speak up rather than shut up, and so become socialised into democratic norms from an early age. Authoritarian and undemocratic states are, in other words, rooted in patriarchal family forms. And, rather conveniently, patriarchy, by giving everyday men some power within the home, placates those who might otherwise rise up and challenge undemocratic rulers. Patriarchy and autocracy stand or fall together.

Once we open our eyes to the experiences of women, rather than focussing purely on men, theres an obvious candidate for why Britain – and indeed other parts of the West – not only caught up with but overtook the rest of the world in the global economic race. Freedom for the everyday woman in comparison with most other parts of the world, whilst far from perfect, boosted wages, skills, saving, entrepreneurial spirit and helped to build not only markets but also a democratic and capable state – all of the things needed for economic advance. If the West wants to stay ahead and improve its foundations for future growth, thats worth remembering today – particularly at a time when there is growing concern that we are moving backwards not forwards in terms of womens rights. 

Victoria Bateman is a Fellow in Economics at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge. Her new book, The Sex Factor: How Women Made the West Rich, is out now:

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