VoxEU Column Economic history Gender

Historical gender discrimination does not explain comparative Western European development

The comparatively slow economic growth of Southwestern Europe since the Middle Ages is often attributed to gender discrimination and the idea that women had more agency in England and the Low Countries, which kept fertility levels low and human-capital formation high. This column combines a dataset from six centuries of archival sources with a qualitative discussion of comparative social norms to show that women in Portugal were no more discriminated against than women in other parts of Western Europe, which suggests that other factors must be responsible for the divergence in incomes

Gender discrimination has been pointed to as a determining factor behind the long-run divergence in incomes between Southern and Northwestern Europe. A prominent ‘girl power’ hypothesis suggests that the different social practices in Southwestern Europe relative to the Low Countries or England are to blame for the inability of the former region to grow during the early modern period and beyond. Moor and Zanden (2010) argue that the European Marriage Pattern (EMP), based on consensus and neo-locality as two core principles, did not manifest itself in the former countries to the same extent as in the latter; these constituted the core EMP areas, where women have had a greater degree of agency since the Middle Ages. As a result of this supposedly heightened agency, historical fertility levels were low and human capital formation higher than elsewhere (Moor and Zanden 2010). The same literature argues that women in the European South suffered to a greater extent from gender discrimination. According to Pleijt and Zanden (2021), for example, women in Southwestern Europe were paid according to social norms and were not allowed to participate in the market economy to the same extent as women in Northwestern Europe. The position of women in the Netherlands, measured by the wage gap, is deemed to have been especially favourable, even in comparison with England but especially in comparison with Southern and Eastern Europe (for a review of the literature, see Zanden et al. 2019). Some of the matters related to this literature have been addressed in prior columns (e.g. Baten and de Pleijt 2018 and 2019).

In new research (Palma et al. 2021), we show that there is no evidence that women in Portugal were historically more discriminated against than women in other parts of Western Europe, including England and the Netherlands (Figure 1). We rely on a new dataset with thousands of observations from archival sources covering six centuries, which we complement with a qualitative discussion of comparative social norms. We show that compared with Northwestern Europe, women in Portugal faced similar gender wage gaps, married at similar ages, and did not face more restrictions to labour market participation. We also discuss the comparative evidence for other parts of Southern Europe, following the existing literature (e.g. Drelichman and González Agudo 2020). 

Figure 1 Comparative gender wage gap (unskilled f/m): daily wages, 1271-1900


Sources: For Portugal, see references listed in Appendix B of Palma et al. (2021). For England, Humphries and Weisdorf (2015). For Denmark, Jensen et al. (2019). For Italy, Pleijt and Zanden (2021) from 1590-1800; Melacrinis (2021) concerns Southern Italy from 1802-1859; and Strangio (2021) concerns a tobacco factory in 1881. For all others, see Pleijt and Zanden (2021).

Our finding raises questions about the causal link between industrialisation and social norms within Western Europe. The evidence points to women’s rights following, rather than causing, economic development. Portugal’s early modern marriage regime was characterised by the two key EMP features as defined by Zanden et al. (2019) – consensus and neo-locality – to a degree similar to that of the North Sea region. Accordingly, the evidence does not support the view that “in southern Europe […] the EMP was not characteristic or was much less prevalent” (Zanden et al. 2019). Women in Portugal also married late (Table 1), and with a weak correlation between marriage ages and income levels (Figure 2). As mentioned, gender wage gaps were similar to those in the North Sea region: unskilled women earned about two-thirds of male wages. We additionally find that women’s labour market participation or property rights were not weaker in Portugal than elsewhere in Western Europe.

Table 1 Historical marriage ages for women in Portugal


Sources: for Cardanha, Rowland (1989); for Eixo, Ferreira (2005); for Selmes, Santos and Lopes (2017).

Figure 2 Mean age of first marriage and real GDP per capita in constant prices (1990 Geary-Khamis “international” dollars), 1500-1910


Sources: GDP per head in constant prices from Palma and Reis (2019) and Henriques et al. (2020); for the mean age at first marriage, see Appendix E of Palma et al. (2021).

Our paper supports the view that the sources of comparative European early modern economic growth performances reside in causes unrelated to different EMP practices (Dennison and Ogilvie 2016). All of Western Europe was broadly similar concerning female agency. This implies that an explanation for the growing income inequality between European countries during the early modern period, especially from the mid-seventeenth century onward – the 'Little Divergence' – must be found elsewhere.


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