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The plough and the veil

Man working a plough in India, 2009

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

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  1. Brett wrote:

    That’s an interesting link. It’s not the first time I’ve read material that sought to identify a number of cultural practices in terms of economic roots.

    Posted November 18, 2010 at 3:05 am | Permalink
  2. geckonomist wrote:

    correlation equals causation at NYU.

    Posted November 18, 2010 at 3:18 am | Permalink
  3. William Easterly wrote:

    Geckoeconomist, the authors addressed causality in the paper.

    Posted November 18, 2010 at 7:48 am | Permalink
  4. Tim Grant wrote:

    This was a very intriguing read, one more piece to the puzzle of inequality, hopefully agriculture will become less and less of a split as technology improves…

    Posted November 18, 2010 at 9:16 am | Permalink
  5. nadodi wrote:

    I come from an agricultural family rooted in Southern India, so please permit me to say “Really?”

    Having seen plough used as the tilling method all over Tamilnadu, I find the study’s assertion that the difference of how women are treated in North and South India can be attributed to the use of plough quite dubious.

    The authors are relying on Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas to decipher plough use amongh ethnic groups, but even Murdock’s map on page 10 of the study seems to show ‘aboriginal’ plough use in South India.

    Attributing gender role attitudes to plough agriculture seems a bit too simplistic.

    I confess that I only looked at where the authors got historic plough use data from. So I may be missing something in another part of the report.

    Posted November 18, 2010 at 9:35 am | Permalink
  6. Brigid wrote:

    One item that may play a role in the causation question is farming methods and their impact on miscarriage. If plough-based methods meant women were more likely to miscarry by farming, then by mutual agreement between men & women, the men would take up this work.

    I can’t at the moment find the specific citation for this idea but think I first read about it in Ken Wilber’s “Brief History of Everything.”

    Posted November 18, 2010 at 9:53 am | Permalink
  7. Aid Person wrote:

    Why wasn’t this the case in rural Europe – Greece, Italy, Spain – where plough cultures were at work and women were still in the fields. Maybe the men were pushing the plough but the women were certainly doing other things in the fields alongside them.

    I definitely agree that looking at economic structures tells us much about ensuing gender roles – but reducing it to the plow is too linear a conclusion.

    Also – glad you note the role the Wars played in women’s equality movement in the US and Europe – I think this had WAY more to do with women’s rights than the feminist movement.

    Posted November 18, 2010 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  8. Quicksilversurfer wrote:

    Intriguing! Although, not having read the article, couldn’t it be argued also that societies where culturally women were to stay around the home developed the plough while the societies which allowed greater range of mobility to women, having lesser shortage of (wo)manpower for field work did not feel the urgency for the plow?

    Posted November 18, 2010 at 5:53 pm | Permalink
  9. aki wrote:

    I think is a little bit simplistic. For example East Europe countries they have a long agricultural tradition and the use of plough was common but the gender expectations were totally different. Most women were involved in agricultural activities except the moving of animals into the mountains in the summer and bringing them back in the winter. Otherwise they spend a lot of time outside the house. As far as I saw in my country still in some areas they use the manual plough and women are able to handle it.

    I wander if that is a main reason or just a possible factor that together with other specific issues in the area, did generate gender attitude in African , Asian and Middle East countries.

    the culture of veil is common among Christian orthodox countries also but it is not connected with seclusion at all. In Romania was a distinction between unmarried girls and married ones. But secluding women or segregation between man and women was unheard of.
    They were meeting every Sunday to dance together. Is completely strange to see just man dancing together in traditional folk dances.
    there is something not right with dowry also. Middle East is identify as a plough society but man do pay dowry/mahr to women due to religion. In east Europe was more of a mix system. He usually had house and some land, she was coming with the things inside the house (hand made sheets, embroideries, pillows etc). Dowry was somehow both of them responsibility.

    Posted November 19, 2010 at 2:29 am | Permalink
  10. Mietzsche wrote:

    endogeneity issues not addressed properly, in my opinion.

    Posted November 19, 2010 at 5:39 am | Permalink
  11. Joel wrote:

    At the beginning of that the 19th century the plough in the west became dramatically lighter and more effective due to the use of predominately iron devices. Productivity soared.

    One can think of several other distinctions associated with this basic agricultural activity. E.g. The predominate use of draft horses vs water buffalo, wet rice cultivation vs dry farming grains and so forth.

    Posted November 19, 2010 at 11:37 am | Permalink
  12. zee wrote:

    I haven’t read the paper, which is linked to nicely above and isn’t even behind any kind of paywall, but I’ve read the blog post in 30 seconds and I bet the first thought that occurred to me like totally like invalidates it, plus which I bet neither the researchers nor their peer reviewers thought of it.

    Posted November 19, 2010 at 11:41 am | Permalink
  13. Padmavathi Nemana wrote:

    I think there is a flaw in the conclusion of these studies. It looks like the people who conducted these studies never visited South India. I was born and brought up in remote villages of South India. Plowing is major way of forming in South India even today. There are many farmers with small pieces of land in which they cannot use tractors or modern equipment. They have to use age old methods. In India both in south and north, women never stayed home nor they were veiled until India was invaded by Muslims. Women were educated and even used to be trained in using weapons though they never participated in wars in big numbers. There were queens who really ruled their kingdoms and participated in wars. When Muslims started invading India they used to capture women folk and use them as sex slaves. North India was the worst victim of Muslim invasion where as South did not suffer too much when compared to North. Invaders used to enter India from North. Women were forced to stay home and use veils to escape from Muslim aggression. This was the main reason for “sati” custom also. Rajput women preferred jumping into fire to the molestation in the hands of thugs who were invading their lands.

    Posted November 19, 2010 at 4:40 pm | Permalink
  14. Faraz Siddiqui wrote:

    Interesting perspective. you should however know that in large areas of the world, but the middle east in particular, property rights affected the balance of power between genders.
    Medieval women in the middle east for example, could own land. The Church that sponsored colonial powers into these areas did not recognize women suffrage. Their land was transferred their husbands or fathers and made them dependent on them. Later, other factors created differential levels of equity in different areas of the world.

    Posted November 19, 2010 at 6:04 pm | Permalink
  15. Abdullah wrote:

    Interesting – I’d also side with those who say this is far too over simplified.

    For example, is not Senegal both “Africa” and “Islamic” (vast majority), and don’t we find mixed gender roles within society? Even within our local communities, no need for anthropological examples on that front, we find multiple examples of differing ideas about gender or even different expressions of ideas due to circumstance. One could look at historical ‘farming’ locations where the gender role would run counter to the hypothosis given. And, manyother examples such as those given by others above.

    Stear clear of generalizations based on a selected case studies.

    Posted November 30, 2010 at 5:30 am | Permalink

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] issue is the topic of a thoughtful new paper and Aid Watch blog post. Apparently there’s a correlation between plow use and the marginalization of women, and it […]

  2. […] Why do some cultures encourage women to work, while others prefer they stay secluded in the home? It depends on how they farm. Societies with a tradition of plough agriculture tend to believe that the natural place for women is inside the home. Interesting bit of technological determinism c/o Aid Watch […]

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