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Female Economic Strategies in the Modern World

Reviewer(s):Arthi, Vellore

Published by EH.Net (April 2013)

Beatrice Moring, editor, Female Economic Strategies in the Modern World. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2012. xiii + 201 pp. ?60/$99 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-84893-350-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Vellore Arthi, Faculty of History, University of Oxford.

In Female Economic Strategies in the Modern World, Beatrice Moring and her contributors add to ongoing debates on women?s work and wellbeing, compiling varied but thematically linked historical accounts of female survival.

Moring, in her introduction, argues that women were more resilient and had greater access to diverse survival strategies than is traditionally assumed. The eight cases presented in the chapters that follow suggest, perhaps less optimistically, that women faced grim realities fraught with uncertainty. Indeed, even where they found the means to get by, women rarely enjoyed stability, comfort, and upward mobility.

While these studies hang together rather loosely, and examine women?s lives through broad-ranging sources and contexts, they reveal striking similarities in female economic strategies. The thematic patterns that emerge ? for instance, reliance on interpersonal networks or the importance of housing-sharing ? emphasize women?s creativity and self-sacrifice as engines of survival, and patriarchal ideology, gender-segregated labor markets, and institutional barriers to women?s autonomy as impediments to their wellbeing. Below, I provide a brief look at some of these patterns in the contexts of propertied women, working-class women, and women in today?s developing world.

Unique among the contributions to this volume, and indeed, rare in studies of women?s welfare,
Marie-Pierre Arrizabalaga and Margareth Lanzinger examine the fates of women of means.

Arrizabalaga shows how unusual, gender-equitable inheritance patterns in French Basqueland provided sisters and brothers fairer footing than in many contemporary European societies, but nevertheless resulted in gender-distinct migration patterns for non-inheriting siblings ? patterns which reflected customary norms, gender segregation in occupations, and persistent gender gaps in returns to human capital. Non-inheriting men frequently moved abroad, with the American West a popular destination. Women, on the other hand, preferred to move to cities near their family home, so as to capitalize on plentiful employment and possible marriage opportunities there, to be nearer to their kinship and social support networks, and to avoid the hardships of American frontier life. While overseas migration represented a high-return option for women, they were less prepared than their brothers to accept the concomitant risks, and chose instead to have lower-status but more stable lives closer to home.

Lanzinger, too, examines the consequences of eighteenth-century Austrian women?s institutionally-determined relationship to property. Notably, she spotlights marital property law, a little-studied corner of property law. Using marriage contracts to contrast the rights and options afforded women under varying property and inheritance systems ? including those that pooled and those that separated the property brought into and amassed during marriage ? Lanzinger finds that women?s outcomes were highly context-dependent, shaped overwhelmingly by gender and relative wealth at marriage. While Lanzinger does not comment on the larger implications for marriage-market and intra-household bargaining, given the unique variation in property regimes described in her sources, such topics would make particularly promising avenues for future research.

Other contributors focus on more familiar topics in working-class households.

The sharing of housing recurs in these accounts as both a means of earning income and cutting costs. Lola Valverde Lamfus, studying nineteenth- and twentieth-century Guipuzcoa, Spain, notes that when the tourism industry in San Sebastian drove up housing prices, living with extended family and taking in lodgers became attractive strategies for women. Susannah Ottaway finds that in eighteenth-century England, vulnerable women coped with isolation and high living costs by sharing housing, whether with their grown children or with strangers, and by drawing on their social networks for support. Indeed, among these poor groups, for whom cohabitation offered a measure of freedom and was thus preferable to the workhouse, unrelated women were often found living together in the same houses, and, more intriguingly, nearby each other in ?widow-spinster clusters.? Similarly, Moring finds that both lodger-taking and cohabitation in bargain housing were popular in the twentieth-century Finnish context. Such findings are fascinating not only because they suggest female-headed households were often too poor to afford independent housing, but also because they imply a disconnect between the supply and demand for housing, between rents and incomes, between dwelling sizes as constructed and household sizes as they naturally occurred.

Contributors agree less on questions of poor relief. Richard Wall, for instance, finds that poor English widows secured reasonable diets and living standards equivalent to those of young laboring households, due not only to these women?s freedom from male consumption dictates, but also to Poor Law assistance. While he and Ottaway present a more benign view of poor relief in England, legal and institutional barriers loom large in Anne-Lise Head-K?nig?s story of twentieth-century Swiss widows. Restrictions on internal migration, in combination with laws mandating both self-reliance through work and financial support from unfamiliar and distantly-related kin, evoke a draconian state that provided limited social support. Furthermore, unsympathetic policies ? such as those that sent female poor relief-seekers to ancestral cantons in which they had few social networks ? often complicated women?s circumstances. Over time, however, laws became more attuned to the realities confronting single, widowed, and elderly women, with particular improvement in the situation of older widows following the implementation of post-World War II pension programs.

In contrast to the post-war policy success discussed above, Ver?nica Villarespe Reyes and Ana Patricia Sosa Ferreira describe the failure of policy in modern Mexico to disrupt systemic gender barriers. As emerges frequently throughout the book, in Mexico, too, male breadwinner ideology constrained women, revealing cultural and labor market resistance to female financial independence. In such a society, the authors argue, Progresa-Oportunidades, a conditional cash transfer program designed to raise schooling levels and predicated on patriarchal notions of motherhood and housekeeping, served to exacerbate gender gaps in the labor market and entrench the very factors (e.g. rigid gender roles, lack of support for working mothers) keeping women ? and indeed entire families?poor.

This chapter presents one of the more provocative arguments in the book. The authors? critique of Progresa-Oportunidades as conceptually flawed, on the grounds that its conditions reinforce regressive gender divisions, is strong. However, they do not address or investigate the policy?s actual impacts as these align with its stated goals. This oversight is of special concern since many evaluations of the program, such as those conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute, have hailed its effectiveness in improving child health, nutrition, and schooling outcomes.[1] By examining program results in terms of educational outcomes, the authors could counter the claim that Progresa-Oportunidades merely accomplishes the right things (i.e., boosting education, especially that of girls) in the wrong ways (i.e., by intensifying gender roles). Despite this omission, the authors propose an alternative and possibly more effective policy: one which would disrupt structural and ideological barriers to women?s work, and provide practical support for working women ? for instance, greater childcare provision and reductions in salary discrimination. Indeed, since the authors find gender gaps in wages at all levels of schooling, such policies could prove more successful in reducing gender inequalities and poverty than those, such as Progresa-Oportunidades, targeting human capital investment.

The studies in this volume make persuasive use of rich qualitative evidence, but in many instances could benefit from greater quantitative rigor and more cautious interpretation. For example, Chapter 6 could be strengthened by controlling for (or subdividing tabular data by) variables such as income, region, or education levels; ensuring the gender gaps in incomes reported are adjusted to reflect only unexplained residuals between male and female earnings ? that is, true ?wage discrimination,? to borrow Claudia Goldin?s terminology[2]; or distinguishing between diminishing returns, negative returns, and gender gradients in returns to schooling. Similarly, in some cases, such as those in Chapters 1 and 4, small or selected samples limit the authors? ability to generalize about women?s economic conditions and their strategies, successes, and failures in shaping their destinies. Crucially, with the book?s focus on Western Christian societies, it misses out on opportunities to comment on a more diverse range of institutions, family forms, and patterns in marriage, inheritance, and motherhood, as might be found with the inclusion of cases on Asia or Africa. However, the cases the volume explores in the modern Western world suggest remarkable continuity and universality in women?s experiences across space and time: disheartening in the suggestion of how little women?s most fundamental struggles have changed over a half-millennium, but inspiring in its demonstration of women?s resourcefulness in the face of persistent and systemic adversity. As such, Moring and her contributors offer evidence with present-day academic and policy relevance, and suggest ways in which we might better support women in their pursuit of brighter futures.


1. Emmanuel Skoufias and Bonnie McClafferty, ?Is Progresa Working? Summary of the Results of an Evaluation by IFPRI,? International Food Policy Research Institute Food Consumption and Nutrition Division Discussion Paper No. 118 (2001).

2. Chapter 4 in Claudia Goldin, Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Vellore Arthi is a doctoral student in Economic and Social History at the University of Oxford. Her work focuses on gender, intra-household allocation, and human capital formation across diverse periods and global contexts. (

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Subject(s):Household, Family and Consumer History
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII