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. Today, most rich countries are close to that ideal, 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?
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-19th century, women in England and the US 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 19th century, when England and the US 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 realized in developing
countries today. In recent research, we have looked at the driving forces behind the first phase of the expansion of women’s rights in England and the US. 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. 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.
Illustration: Malay Karmakar / Mint
The main reforms of women’s rights during the 19th 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.
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 whom 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.
In England and the US, the ultimate cause of the expansion of women’s rights throughout the 19th century was technological change that increased the demand for human capital. This 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 their marital bargaining power matters for the grandchildren’s education.
This explanation lines up well with historical evidence. The main phase of the expansion of women’s rights in England and the US in the late 19th century coincided with rapidly increasing investment 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. 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?”
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”.
This theory suggests that the historical advance of women’s rights in the West wasn’t due to a sudden enlightenment after millennia of patriarchy. Rather, it was driven by self-interest deriving from men’s concern about their daughters’ welfare and their descendants’ education.
If this is correct, it implies that men in today’s developing countries can be given a stake in women’s rights. 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.
Edited excerpts. Matthias Doepke is associate professor of economics at Northwestern University. Michele Tertilt is assistant professor of economics at Stanford University. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org