Girl power in a man’s world? Gender and work in sixteenth-century Sweden

July 20, 2022 | Blog
Home > Girl power in a man’s world? Gender and work in sixteenth-century Sweden

by Jacob Molinder (Uppsala University and Lund University) and Christopher Pihl (Uppsala University)

This blog post is based upon the authors’ forthcoming article in the Economic History Review.


Several explanations have been put forward for the ‘Little Divergence’, the process by which the North Sea area advanced ahead of the rest of Europe during the centuries following the Black Death. A prominent theory links the process to the greater autonomy of women in north-western Europe; the region was characterized by marriages later in life, small spousal age gaps, and a high share of women who remained single, resulting in a unique European marriage pattern (EMP).


According to this ‘girl power’ hypothesis, this pattern of family formation and demographic behaviour had important consequences for economic growth. The EMP resulted in improved property rights for women, encouraged female participation in the labour force, and created greater equality between husband and wife. Women’s autonomy, in turn, led to restraints on fertility and increased investments in children’s human capital, allowing economies to escape the Malthusian trap of population growth outpacing agricultural production, and to begin the process of modern economic growth.


Women’s role on the labour market plays a crucial role in this framework; women’s earnings are described as relatively high and the labour market easy accessible. North-western Europe, in this case, encompasses a core area of the Western Netherlands, Flanders, and Eastern England, but it also includes Sweden as well as Northern France and Germany.

Looking closer, the Swedish case constitutes a conundrum for the ‘girl power’ hypothesis. Demographic studies show that Sweden was characterized by an extreme form of the EMP, which, according to the ‘girl power’ hypothesis, should have resulted in stronger female autonomy and subsequent economic growth. Despite this fact, Sweden remained a laggard in the Little Divergence.


In our study forthcoming in the Economic History Review, we use an unusually rich sixteenth-century source from the Swedish royal demesnes—covering a variety of economic sectors and from estates of various sizes—that provides us with information about the employees, their remuneration, their periods of employment, and the food they consumed. We are well situated to examine women’s position since we are able to compare wages for workers hired by the same employer, and our source provides evidence on both men and women across the skill distribution. We are also able to account for the food that the employees were allotted at a time when payment in kind constituted a significant fraction of annual workers’ wages.


We find high relative female pay in unskilled jobs in Sweden, which seems to confirm that a golden age of women’ was present in Sweden also, when workers hired on yearly contracts are considered. We also find high relative wages for women in more skilled occupations on the smaller estates, with an annually hired staff of between 20 and 30 people, suggesting that this pattern extended to women with higher paying jobs in the wider economy. On larger estates, however, skilled women appear to have been earning less than their male counterparts, and their employment opportunities were fewer.


Within a particular skill group, men and women could hold different occupations and tasks, which could affect their relative pay, and productivity could differ between sexes as well. This is especially the case on larger estates where occupational differentiation and the division of labour went far. For this reason, we also zoom in on the skilled occupation of brewers; see Figure 1. The brewers and brewsters of the Crown had to follow recipes prescribed centrally, and the production process was highly standardized. Thus, the same sorts of brews were produced at the different estates. Examining cases where male and female brewers worked side by side on the same estate, no evidence of women systematically being paid less can be found.



Figure 1.   Man and woman brewing

Source: Magnus, O., Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus [A description of the northern peoples] (Rome, 1555).

Our results demonstrate that there was a ‘golden age’ for women in Sweden in terms of relative wages for unskilled work, but that women’s work was restrained in many other ways, including their ability to acquire skills and to access higher-skilled jobs. Women’s opportunities to take control over their lives were severely restricted compared to men’s. Our study contrasts with the idea that the EMP can explain the ascendancy of the North Sea region in the centuries following the Black Death.


In this sense, our work mirrors recent results from research on Southern Europe, which has concluded, just as we do, that women faced more restricted occupational possibilities despite similar wages. Competitive markets for women’s labour thus seem to have been a pan-European phenomenon, but the same is true for women’s subordination and lack of access to jobs that could provide a springboard to economic independence.


Taken together, our results illustrate the danger of using relative wages to make inferences about women’s autonomy. Anyone who intends to draw conclusions on the labour market in general and on women’s bargaining positions in particular needs to be careful.



To contact the authors: