Two Worlds of Female Labour: Gender Wage Inequality in Western Europe, 1300-1800

New EHES working paper by Alexandra M. de Pleijt (University of Oxford) and  Jan Luiten van Zanden (Utrecht University). The paper can be accessed here.

Jan Luiten van Zanden is a Full Professor
of Global Economic History at Utrecht University
Sandra de Pleijt is a post-doctoral
research fellow at Oxford University

It is generally acknowledged that the degree to which women participate in labour markets and how they are remunerated are important determinants of female autonomy that may also affect their demographic behaviour. Such links have been discussed in the literature about the “European Marriage Pattern” (EMP) (e.g. de Moor and van Zanden 2010). In order to bring about the conditions for female autonomy of the EMP (in which women have a large say in the decision when and with whom they marry), women should have had access to the labour market and have earned a decent wage. This is clearly affected by the gender wage gap and the possibility that women earn their own living and have the option to remain single.
In this paper we determine to what extent this was made possible by the earnings of women in the labour market. So far several have tried to document women’s wages in different times and places (e.g. Van Nederveen Meerkerk 2010, Van Zanden 2011, Burnette 2008), but Humphries and Weisdorf (2015) were the first to attempt to match Clark’s (2007) evidence on the long-run evolution of male wages with comparable series for unskilled English workers between 1260 and 1850. We supplement the work by Humphries and Weisdorf (2015) with evidence on women’s wages for six European countries between 1300 and 1800: Belgium (Antwerp), Spain (Navarra, Aragon and Sevilla), Germany (Augsburg and Wurzburg), Italy (Piedmont and Napoli), Sweden (Stockholm) and Austria (Weyer).
            Having derived the evidence for unskilled female wages for this set of European countries allows us first of all to study the trends in the gender wage gap across countries and over time. Our evidence shows that there were two worlds of female labour. In the South of Europe women earned about 50% of the wage of unskilled male labourers. In the North-Western part of Europe this gap was much smaller during the Medieval Period, but it increased dramatically between about 1500 and 1800. Our findings therefore seem to suggest that women were more marginal in the labour market in Southern Europe than in the Northern and Western parts of Europe. In addition, we hypothesise that the rise of the gender wage gap in North-Western Europe over the course of the early modern period was the result of slack labour markets: periods of economic growth saw a decreasing wage gap, whereas in periods of declining real wags for men often also witnessed an increase in the gender wage gap. The implication of this finding is that women seem to have suffered more than men in times of economic hardship. In that sense they were truly marginal – a point also made by Langdon (2010) and Mate (1998) – and arguably became increasingly marginal.
We also estimate if single women were able to generate enough income to maintain a single household. In doing so, we have calculated how many days of work were needed for women to earn the barebones basket (i.e. minimum subsistence package for one person) (Allen 2001, Allen and Weisdorf 2011). The picture that emerges from this is that there was a “golden age of labour” in Western Europe. In the countries bordering the North Sea ca. 75 days of work were required for the barebones basket before the Black Death, whereas this had declined to ca. 25 to 40 days of work in the first half of the 15th century. After 1500, when the population level climbed back to pre-plague levels, there was a tendency to increase again. These numbers suggest however that it was possible for a woman with access to the labour market to earn an income that allowed her to remain single.
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