Girl-power generates superstars in long-term development: evidence from fifteenth to nineteenth century Europe

March 8, 2019 | Blog
Home > Girl-power generates superstars in long-term development: evidence from fifteenth to nineteenth century Europe

by Joerg Baten (University of Tübingen) and Alexandra de Pleijt (University of Oxford)

This research will be presented during the EHS Annual Conference in Belfast, April 5th – 7th 2019. Conference registration can be found on the EHS website.



What are the crucial ingredients for success or failure of economies in long-term perspective? Is female autonomy one of the critical factors?


Map of Europe, by Abraham Ortelius. Available on Wikimedia Commons.

A number of development economists have found that gender inequality was associated with slower development (Sen, 1990; Klasen and Lamanna, 2009; Gruen and Klasen, 2008). This resulted in development policies targeted specifically at women. In 2005, for example, the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan stated that gender equality is a prerequisite for eliminating poverty, reducing infant mortality and reaching universal education (United Nations, 2005).

In recent periods, however, a number of doubts have been made public by development economists. Duflo (2012) suggests that there is no automatic effect of gender equality on poverty reduction, citing a number of studies. The causal direction from poverty to gender inequality might be at least as strong as the opposite direction, according to this view.

For an assessment of the direction of causality in long-term perspective, consistent data had not been available until now. Due to this lack of evidence, the link between female autonomy and human capital formation in early modern Europe has not yet been formally tested in a dynamic model (for Eastern Europe, see Baten et al, 2017; and see de Pleijt et al, 2016, for a cross-section).

De Moor and van Zanden (2010) have put forward the hypothesis that female autonomy had a strong influence on European history, basing their argument on a historical description of labour markets and the legacy of medieval institutions. They argue that female marriage ages, among other components of demographic behaviour, might have been a crucial factor for early development in northwestern European countries (for a critique, especially on endogeneity issues, see Dennison and Ogilvie 2014 and 2016; reply: Carmichael et al, 2016).

In a similar vein, Diebolt and Perrin (2013) argue, theoretically, that gender inequality retarded modern economic growth in many countries.

In a new study, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference, we directly assess the growth effects of female autonomy in a dynamic historical context.

Given the obviously crucial role of endogeneity issues in this debate, we carefully consider the causal nature of the relationship. More specifically, we exploit relatively exogenous variation of (migration adjusted) lactose tolerance and pasture suitability as instrumental variables for female autonomy.

The idea is that a high lactose tolerance increased the demand for dairy farming, whereas similarly, a high share of land suitable for pasture farming allowed more supply. In dairy farming, women traditionally had a strong role; this allowed them to participate substantially in income generation during the late medieval and early modern period (Voigtländer and Voth, 2013).

In contrast, female participation was limited in grain farming, as it requires substantial upper-body strength (Alesina et al, 2013). Hence, the genetic factor of lactose tolerance and pasture suitability influences long-term differences in gender-specific agricultural specialisation.

In instrumental variable regressions, we show that the relationship between female autonomy (age at marriage) and human capital (numeracy) is likely to be causal. More specifically, we use two different datasets: the first is a panel dataset of European countries from 1500 to 1850, which covers a long time horizon.

Second, we study 268 regions in Europe, stretching from the Ural Mountains in the east to Spain in the southwest and the UK in the northwest. Our results are robust to the inclusion of a large number of control variables and different specifications of the model.

In sum, our empirical results suggest that economies with more female autonomy became (or remained) superstars in economic development. The female part of the population needed to contribute to overall human capital formation and prosperity, otherwise the competition with other economies was lost.

Institutions that excluded women from developing human capital – such as being married early, and hence, often dropping out of independent, skill-demanding economic activities – prevented many economies from being successful in human history.




Alesina, A, P Giuliano and N Nunn (2013) ‘On the Origins of Gender Roles: Women and the Plough’, Quarterly Journal of Economics 128(2): 469-530.

Baten, J, and AM de Pleijt (2018) ‘Girl Power Generates Superstars in Long-term Development: Female Autonomy and Human Capital Formation in Early Modern Europe’, CEPR Working Paper.

Baten, J, M Szoltysek and M Camestrini (2017) ‘Girl Power’ in Eastern Europe? The Human Capital Development of Central-Eastern and Eastern Europe in the Seventeenth to Nineteenth Century and its Determinants’, European Review of Economic History 21(1): 29-63.

Carmichael, SG, AM de Pleijt, JL van Zanden and T de Moor (2016) ‘The European Marriage Pattern and its Measurement’, Journal of Economic History 76(1): 196-204.

Carmichael, SG, S Dilli and A Rijpma (2014) ‘Gender Inequality since 1820’, in How Was Life? Global Well-being since 1820 edited by JL van Zanden, J Baten, M Mira d’Hercole, A Rijpma, C Smith and M Timmer, OECD.

De Moor, T, and JL van Zanden (2010) ‘Girl Power: The European Marriage Pattern and Labour Markets in the North Sea Region in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period’, Economic History Review 63(1): 1-33.

De Pleijt, AM, JL van Zanden and SG Carmichael (2016) ‘Gender Relations and Economic Development: Hypotheses about the Reversal of Fortune in EurAsia’, Centre for Global Economic History (CGEH) Working Paper Series No. 79

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Dennison, T, and S Ogilvie (2016) ‘Institutions, Demography and Economic Growth’, Journal of Economic History 76(1): 205-17.

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Sen, A (1990) ‘More than 100 million women are missing’, New York Review of Books, 20 December: 61-66.

United Nations (2005) Progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, 1990-2005, Secretary-General’s Millennium Development Goals Report.

Voigtländer, N, and H-J Voth (2013) ‘How the West ‘Invented’ Fertility Restriction’, American Economic Review 103(6): 2227-64.