Finding my path among a crowd of cyclists on an April morning, the frosty weather reminds me that Stockholm lies at sixty degrees north. I am not surprised that most of the cyclists around me are women. But in fact, I should be shocked if I were to think in a historical and international context.
Women have biked a long way to get here. They even adapted their clothing style to take advantage of the independence that this new, cheap mode of transport offered at the turn of the 20th century. Susan B Anthony, the American women’s rights activist, wrote in 1896: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world” (Shrock 2004, Macy 2017).
Even in Sweden, the most gender-neutral country in Europe, just a few decades ago the cyclist crowd would be majority male, like most cyclist crowds in the world today (EIGE 2020). Cycling is, of course, only one dimension of women’s status, which range from legal rights, informal customs, to representation in positions of power.
What are the historical roots of these international differences? How far back do we need to go in history to find the root of divergence? Should we expect a convergence eventually?
Such a long-term and global understanding of women’s history not only improves our understanding of the past but, importantly, teaches us about the future of women and other oppressed groups and their (potential) paths of emancipation. As the mathematician Joseph Fourier wrote 200 years ago, “the degree of emancipation of women is the natural measure of general emancipation”.
The rise of women’s status has come with many struggles. First-wave feminism fought for women’s property and voting rights, leading to enfranchisement in developed countries during the 20th century. Starting in the 1960s, second-wave feminism targeted workplace and legal inequality. Following Generation X’s third wave in the 1990s, today we are living through the fourth wave of feminism as the spotlight of #MeToo justice reached men of power from all walks of life.
But was it really the case that half of the world population were repressed for the entire history of humankind, leaving half of the total brainpower unused? We had doubts from the beginning, as many outstanding women throughout history pop into my head.
What about Sappho? What about Joan of Arc? Female rulers held power in almost every civilisation, from Hatshepsut (the mighty pharaoh in 15th century BCE) to more than a millennia later when Cleopatra VII reigned over Egypt, to the “queens era” of Europe, usually dated from the 14th to 18th century CE, with prominent queens like Elizabeth of England and Christina of Sweden (Monter 2012).
Despite the debate on gender balance being front and centre in many societies, most research has focused on case studies of a few exceptional women or women’s status in a specific region in a particular era. Although these provide valuable insights, we still lack a unified view of how women’s status evolved over time and across countries.
Our work seeks to address these questions systematically and quantitatively and provide a unified view of how women’s status evolved over the entire 5,000 years of human history.
The progress on these fundamental questions has been impeded by the lack of a consistent and comprehensive dataset covering time and space. In recent work, we built such data, the Human Biographical Record (Nekoei and Sinn 2021b). The Human Biographical Record is part of a larger project, the Human Record, where we construct and provide to the research community datasets like the Human Biographical Record using two components.
First, crowd-sourcing produces the largest voluntary collaboration in human history through Wikipedia and Wikidata. Second, machine learning transfers all this information to datasets like the Human Biographical Record, where we can use modern statistical methods to uncover historical patterns.1
As part of this research agenda, we attempt to write a quantitative history of women over the last 5,000 years (Nekoei and Sinn 2021a). This is an exercise in long-run quantitative history in the spirit of École des Annales (social history). We measure the female share of people at the top of the social hierarchy in each era as a proxy for women’s status. This measure echoes how we today use the female share in almost all our debates on women’s emancipation.
Using the Human Biographical Record, our focus is on a fixed share of each generation (top 1 percent mille), to allow comparison across time and space. We use the fact that around 1% of Human Biographical Record’s entries have an entry in traditional encyclopaedias such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica. We first predict the likelihood of appearing in a traditional encyclopaedia, then extrapolate to rank all seven million entries in the Human Biographical Record.
To our surprise, we document no long-run trend in the women’s share at the top when analysing 5000 years of recorded human history (Figure 1). While women’s share fluctuates around an average of 10%, the main positive outlier is the third millennium BCE, driven by a high women’s presence among Ancient Egypt’s observations in the Human Biographical Record and echoes Egyptian women’s equal rights to men. Women could initiate divorce, own and transmit property, receive an equal inheritance, and even achieve immortality (Lesko 1998, Bridenthal et al. 1998, Hughes and Hughes 2001, Johnson 2002)!
Figure 1 Women’s share at the top of social hierarchy over history
This finding puts women’s contemporary struggle for equality in historical perspective. Women’s emancipation is not a contemporary concept, but the world had actually progressed quite far already a long time ago, before regressing.
But the modern rise of women has a distinct and important feature. A closer look at the Human Biographical Record individual-level data reveals that for most of history, women who became part of the elite were either born into influential families or married into them. We show that women’s power has been a side-effect of nepotism: the more important the family connections, the higher the share of women at the top.
This relationship is present across time (in the time series) and geographies within a period (in the cross-section), but it slowly begins to break down in recent centuries. Indeed, Figure 2 shows a rising prevalence of women who were not born into families or married to males with power and fame, a group we call ‘self-made’. But where did this group come from?
Figure 2 Women’s share of ‘self-mades’ over history
The first rise in the share of women among self-mades is recorded among writers and poets born between 1620 and 1660. It reflects the birth of ‘the feminine reading market’ in Protestant Europe (Figure 3).
Figure 3 Women’s share of writers over history
This market emerged in the context of increasing the literacy and purchasing power of women. The women writers and poets who supplied this market were educated by informal ‘household academies’, as universities during this period were closed to women (Figure 4). These highly educated women flourished in new informal public spheres: salons and the Republic of Letters.
Figure 4 Fraction studied at university over history
During the same period, both the marriage and labour markets awarded a higher return to women’s education. The new feminine reading market encompassed new genres, such as the novel, in a new language: vernacular, not Latin. The book market structure with many small buyers and less guild presence may have played a significant role in creating a space for self-made women to flourish.
A century and a half later, a broader take-off of self-made women started with the 1800 birth cohort – first among artists and scholars, followed by elected politicians, and finally appointed politicians. There is no sign of a slowdown in the rate of progress, and self-made successful women have become a ubiquitous phenomenon in the recent period.
A strong writer wave in the 17th century predicts a more substantial take-off of self-made women in the 19th century (Figure 5). This effect has persisted and created cross-country divergence.
Figure 5 Women’s share of pre-1800 writers vs share of ‘self-mades’
We interpret these historical patterns through the lens of a theoretical framework. Success has different dimensions – pecuniary or not, lasting or not – which all depend on three ingredients related to family connections, control of the individual (skill), and luck. Although all these elements are gender-neutral, their rates of return are not.
The framework illustrates that the return rate of family connections has fluctuated, while a gender gap in the return rate persisted. This led to the trendless movement of the share of women, but no change in self-made women’s share for most of history. The rise of self-made women – both the initial wave in the 17th century among the literary elite and the later broader take-off around the 1800 birth cohort – depicts a rise of return on women’s skill.
We arrived in front of the German school, where my daughter will jump off the bike. Here, Sophia Brenner (1659–1730) was exceptionally allowed to study when the school was only open to boys. In our data, she is part of the literary wave of women writers of the 17th century (Figure 3).
Latin, the language necessary for a professional career, was considered inappropriate for Sophia Brenner. But when the Latin teacher spotted her assisting a fellow with his Latin homework, the teacher asked and received the parents’ permission to teach her Latin too. Her coronation poem to Queen Ulrika Eleonora of Sweden in 1719 justifies her title of ‘the first Swedish spokeswoman for female rights’:
Our body is nothing but the clothes of our soul
the only difference between he and she,
as for the soul concerned, it is just as good,
yes, just as great, in many woman’s body.
Bridenthal, B, S M Stuard and M E Wiesner (eds.) (1998), Becoming visible: Women in European history, Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
EIGE (2020), Gender equality index.
Johnson, J H (2002), “Women’s legal rights in ancient Egypt”, Fathom Archive, University of Chicago Library.
Hughes, S S, and B Hughes (2001), “Women in ancient civilizations”, in A Michael (ed.), Agricultural and Pastoral Societies in Ancient and Classical History, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 116–50.
Lesko, B S (1998), “Women of Ancient Egypt and Western Asia”, in Becoming Visible: Women in European History.
Macy, S (2017), “Wheels of change: How women rode the bicycle to freedom (with a few flat tires along the way)”, Washington, DC: National Geographic Kids.
Monter, W (2012), The rise of female kings in Europe, 1300-1800, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Nekoei, A, and F Sinn (2021a), “HERSTORY: The rise of self-made women”, CEPR Discussion Paper 15736.
Nekoei, A, and F Sinn (2021b), “Human biographical record (HBR)”, CEPR Discussion Paper 15825.
Shrock, J (2004), The gilded age, Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
1 Another dataset, Human War Record (HWR), collects information about all conflicts in human history and matches the participants of those conflicts to their Human Biographical Record entries.