Discussion paper

DP15736 HERSTORY: The rise of self-made women

We document the evolution of women's status across the globe and throughout recorded history. We first construct a new database of seven million notable individuals (Human Biographical Record). We then measure women's status as women's share among the most prominent fraction of population that allows comparison across time and space. The records show no long-run trend in women's share in recorded history. Historically, women's power has been a side-effect of nepotism: the more important family connections, the higher the women's share. But self-made women began to rise among the writers in the 17th century before a broader take off started with the 1800 birth cohort: first among artists and scholars, followed by elected politicians, and finally appointed politicians. The first wave among writers emerged when informal humanist education and new public spheres shaped a supply of literary women, who met the demand of a new female reading public. A strong writer wave predicts a stronger takeoff of self-made women in the 19th century. This effect has persisted and created cross-country divergence.


Nekoei, A and F Sinn (2021), ‘DP15736 HERSTORY: The rise of self-made women‘, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 15736. CEPR Press, Paris & London. https://cepr.org/publications/dp15736