The Economic History Review

Two worlds of female labour: gender wage inequality in western Europe, 1300–1800

Volume 74 Issue 3
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Pages: 611-638Authors: Alexandra de Pleijt, Jan Luiten van Zanden
Published online: January 6, 2021DOI: 10.1111/ehr.13045

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Labour market engagement by women is an important determinant of female autonomy that may also affect their demographic behaviour. In order to bring about the conditions for the female autonomy that characterized the European marriage pattern (in which women had a say in the decision about when and whom they marry), women needed to earn a decent wage. This is clearly affected by the gender wage ratio and the possibility of women earning their own living and having the option of remaining single. So far no attempt has been made to compare the wages of women across Europe over the long run. In this article we provide evidence on the wages of unskilled women for seven European countries (represented by cities or regions within these countries) between 1300 and 1800. Our evidence shows that there were two worlds of female labour. In the south of Europe women earned about 50 per cent of the wage of unskilled male labourers, a ratio that seems to have been fixed by custom. In the northern and western parts of Europe this ratio was much higher during late medieval period, but it showed a declining trend between about 1500 and 1800, a change that was caused by market forces.