Improving women’s rights is one of the main goals of development policy; the United Nations names “promoting gender equality and empowering women” as one of the eight Millennium Development Goals. As Figure 1 shows, today most rich countries are close to the ideal of gender equality, while in the poorest countries women have only limited rights and face widespread discrimination. What, if anything, can development policy do to close the gap in gender equality between rich and poor countries?
Figure 1. Gender Institutions and Development Index versus GDP per capita, 2000
Note: The GID is a composite index that aggregates indicators in the areas of family, physical integrity, civil liberty, and ownership rights. Higher numbers correspond to more discrimination. Source: OECD GID Data Base, 2006. GDP per capita is PPP-adjusted and measured in U.S. Dollars. Source: World Development Indicators Online Edition, 2005. Figure excludes major oil producers.
The political-economy perspective on women’s rights
Pessimists argue that differences in gender discrimination across countries are due to cultural and religious factors that neither can nor should be addressed by policy. But this view clashes with an important observation: When today’s rich countries were still poor, the state of women’s rights in these countries was just as bleak as it is in the poorest countries today. For example, until the mid-nineteenth century, women in England and the United States lost all their civil rights upon marriage. Husbands had full control over their wives’ property and earnings, only men could obtain a divorce, and married women did not have any rights with respect to their legitimate children.
The situation improved only in the second half of the nineteenth century, when England and the United States started a series of reforms that ultimately led to the modern state of equality before the law. The rapid advance of women’s rights in today’s rich countries suggests that it is not some immutable cultural reason that explains cross-country differences in gender equality, but an interaction of women’s rights with the development process itself.
Understanding what triggered reforms of women’s rights in Western countries can inform our thinking about how gender equality might be realised in developing countries today. In recent research, we look at the driving forces behind the first phase of the expansion of women’s rights in England and the United States (Doepke and Tertilt 2008). From about 1850 onwards, various legislatures in both countries passed laws that dramatically improved women’s rights in the areas of divorce law, child custody law, and marital property law. Interestingly, these reforms took place long before women gained the right to vote.1 All the reform laws of this period were passed by all-male legislatures that were accountable only to male voters. This fact suggests that to explain the expansion of women’s rights, we need to focus on the views and attitudes of men.
Why did men decide to share power with women?
The main reforms of women’s rights during the nineteenth century reduced the power of husbands within the household. At the beginning of the century, husbands were still patriarchs with full control over their families’ affairs. By 1900, power was shared almost equally (at least according to the letter of the law) between husbands and wives.
At face value, granting rights to women implied a weakening of men’s rights. Yet it was men who put all the reform laws into place. Why? Our argument is that, from a man’s perspective, there is a trade-off between the rights of his own wife and the rights of other men’s wives. More female bargaining power cuts the share of household consumption that husbands can claim for themselves, which men don’t like. But at the same time, women tend to attach more weight to the well-being of children than men do, which implies that more bargaining power for women also means greater investments in their children’s human capital.2i
Husbands don’t gain directly from their wives having more bargaining power, so ideally men would prefer their own wives to have no rights. But since boosting women’s bargaining power increases human-capital investment in children, men might gain from other women having rights in two ways. First, men are altruistic towards their own children, some of which are daughters. Since men want their daughters to be treated well by their sons-in-law and they want their grandchildren to be well educated, men have a motivation to improve their daughters’ bargaining position. Second, a father prefers his children to find high-quality mates, and therefore stands to gain from building the human capital of his future children-in-law through their mothers.
Human capital and technological change
In England and the United States, we claim, the ultimate cause of the expansion of women’s rights throughout the nineteenth century was technological change that increased the demand for human capital. This demand raised the importance of education and recalibrated the trade-off between the rights of a man’s own wife and those of other men’s wives. When the return to education increases, finding well-educated spouses for one’s children becomes a bigger concern. Similarly, a rising return to education increases fathers’ concern about the rights of their daughters, because the daughters’ marital bargaining power matters for the grandchildren’s education.
Our explanation lines up well with historical evidence. The main phase of the expansion of women’s rights in England and the United States in the late nineteenth century coincided with rapidly increasing investments in education, suggesting that a rise in the demand for human capital was indeed significant.
What is more, growing concern for the education and welfare of children shows up in the historical debates about the major reforms of women’s rights during the nineteenth century. There was a gradual shift in the arguments, from a focus on the rights of men towards giving top priority to the needs of children.
Opponents of reform argued that men holding all power in the household was the natural order and that any changes would endanger the institution of the family. As late as 1868 an editorial writer for the London Times claimed that “the proposed change would totally destroy the existing relation between husband and wife… If a woman has her own property, and can apply to her separate use her own earnings,… what is to prevent her from going where she likes and doing what she pleases?”3
The supporters of reform countered that not all husbands are responsible and that giving power to women would protect the interests of the children. In a debate about Oregon’s Married Women’s Property Act it was argued (by a man, of course) that “If he [the husband] was prudent and thrifty she would give him control of her property. And if he was not, it was better that she should have the power to preserve her property to support herself and educate her children”.4
Lessons for policy
Our theory suggests that the historical advance of women’s rights in the West wasn’t due to a sudden enlightenment of mankind after millennia of patriarchy. Rather, it was driven by old-fashioned self-interest deriving from men’s concern about their daughters’ welfare and their descendants’ education.5 But lest we lose faith in mankind, there is an upside. If our theory is correct, it implies that men in today’s developing countries can be given a stake in women’s rights. Ultimately, inducing developing countries to improve women’s rights on their own accord may be a more promising strategy than trying to impose gender equality from the outside.
From the perspective of the theory, what matters for the advance of women’s rights is the demand for human capital. The data suggest that the link between women’s rights and human capital is equally relevant today as it was in the nineteenth century: Figure 2 shows that in the cross section of rich and poor countries in the year 2000, gender inequality correlates with education even more closely than with income levels.
Figure 2. GID Index versus average years of schooling, 2000
Source of schooling data: World Development Indicators, print edition 2003. Figure excludes major oil producers.
Governments can further the cause of women’s rights by focusing on policies that increase families’ incentives to educate their children. Examples of such policies include public health programs for children, high-quality public education, and subsidies for families who keep their children in school. These policies can change men’s attitudes toward female empowerment, helping to create a broader coalition in favour of expanding women’s rights.
Chused, Richard H. 1985. “Late Nineteenth Century Married Women’s Property Law: Reception of the Early Married Women’s Property Acts by Courts and Legislatures.” American Journal of Legal History 29(1): 3-35.
Doepke, Matthias and Michéle Tertilt. 2008. “Women’s Liberation: What’s in It for Men?” CEPR Discussion Paper 6771.
Duflo, Esther. 2005. “Gender Equality in Development.” BREAD Policy Paper 11.
Washington, Ebonya. 2008. “Female Socialization: How Daughters Affect Their Legislator Fathers’ Voting on Women’s Issues.” American Economic Review. 98(1), 311-32.
1 Universal female suffrage was introduced in 1918 in Britain and in 1920 in the United States.
2 See Duflo 2005.
3 The Times, April 23, 1868, p. 8.
4 Chused 1985, p. 18.
5 The importance of daughters in influencing their fathers’ political views has also been documented in other contexts, such as the voting records of today’s legislators in the United Kingdom and the United States (see Washington 2008).