Female teachers and the rise of primary education in Italy and Spain, 1861 – 1921: evidence from a new dataset

March 4, 2021 | Blog
Home > Female teachers and the rise of primary education in Italy and Spain, 1861 – 1921: evidence from a new dataset

By Gabriele Cappelli (University of Siena) and Gloria Quiroga (Universidad Complutense de Madrid)

This blog is based on a forthcoming article in the Economic History Review, and it is now available in Early View at this link: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ehr.13068


Debates on the relationship between human capital and long-term economic growth (Galor 2011), have sought to clarify the importance of the diffusion of mass schooling and literacy from approximately 1850 to 1950.  Within this debate, demographic, socioeconomic, institutional, and political determinants have been identified (Mitch 2013).  However, the link between gender inequality and the rise of mass education remains comparatively neglected.  Two issues in particular remain.  First, what impact did gender equality exert on the expansion of schooling? Second, what were the economic consequences of the growing feminization of teaching during the long nineteenth  century? (Albisetti 1993).

To address these themes, we provide the first harmonized quantitative evidence on the rise of mass schooling, and the extent of feminization in the teaching profession, within Italy and Spain between c.1861  and 1921.  Provincial data on gross enrolment rates (GER)  in primary education and teaching feminization rates for both countries  are shown  in Figures 1 and 2 (below).


Notes. 1877 was the first year documenting all Italian provinces. Gross Enrolment Rates are shown for
public schooling only. The maps in the lower panel (1B) focus on changes in the period 1877 – 1907, and are shown in percentage points.
Source: as per article.


Note. The changes in the variables reported in the lower panel (2B) focus on the period 1877 – 1921.
Sources: see article.

Although the two countries were characterized by similar income trends throughout the period concerned, the rise of mass education in Italy and Spain followed different paths (Figure 3).


Figure 3. Average Gross Enrolment Ratio in public primary schools: Italy and Spain compared (1861 – 1921). Note: the above figure is based on unweighted averages of provincial values.
Source: as per article.


Of particular interest, the rate of feminization in the teaching profession within primary education was markedly different between the two countries (Figure 4).

Figure 4. The feminization of the teaching profession: Italy and Spain compared, 1861 – 1921. Note: the index is calculated as the ratio between female teachers and total teachers in (public) primary schools.The above figure is based on unweighted averages of provincial values.
Source: as per article

To explain these trends, we test the hypothesis that the growing feminization of teaching was a key determinant of the expansion of education. Our econometric results indicate that the feminization of primary school teaching was associated with the rise of GER and allowed Italy to perform better than Spain, with important implications for the diffusion of literacy, and long-term economic growth. A ten percentage-point increase in the ratio of female to total public-school teachers is associated with a percentage-point increase in the GER. According to our preliminary calculations, had the Spanish feminization rate been comparable Italy’s between 1861 and 1921, Spain’s GER would have been higher – somewhere between three and five percentage points: this is roughly between a third and a half of the cumulated GER-growth difference in 1921 (10 percentage points). In our view, a larger share of female teachers prompted more girls to enrol into primary education, which sustained the expansion of total enrolment rates.

We venture some tentative explanations as to why Spain, unlike Italy, did not manage to mobilize as many female primary-school teachers. National School Acts were crucial: in Italy, such legislation did not prevent women being employed in schools. In contrast, Spanish norms hampered the feminization of teaching by imposing several formal constraints. Our research supports the view that institutions (formal norms regulating schooling) were crucial determinants of human and economic development. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the possibility that exogenous factors might have affected the selection of women into the teaching profession. For example, the limited existing evidence suggests that in Spain the average salary of female teachers was relatively low compared to female wages in other occupations, thereby preventing skilled women from working as teachers and limiting primary-school female enrolment and thus overall enrolment rates. By contrast, in Italy, female-teachers’ salaries were relatively more attractive compared to other occupations.



Funding information

Cappelli gratefully acknowledges financial support from the Spanish Ministry for Science and Innovation, project HAR2016-76814-C2-1-P, as well as the Swedish Research Council, project 2016-05230. Funding from the Italian Ministry of University and Research (MUR), PRIN 2017 (prot. 2017YLBYZE) is also acknowledged.


To contact the author:

Gabriele Cappelli, gabriele.cappelli@unisi.it, @gabercappe

Gloria Quiroga, mariagloria.quiroga@pdi.ucm.es



Albisetti, James C. 1993. ‘The Feminization of Teaching in the Nineteenth Century: A Comparative Perspective’. History of Education 22 (3): 253–63.

Galor, Oded. 2011. Unified Growth Theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mitch, David. 2013. ‘The Economic History of Education’. In Routledge Handbook of Major Events in Economic History, edited by Randall E. Parker and Robert M. Whaples. London; New York: Routledge.