Melanie Meng Xue, Northwestern University

"High-Value Work and the Rise of Women: The Cotton Revolution and Gender Equality in China"


This paper studies a unique historical experiment: the cotton revolution in premodern China and its persistent effects on women. Bounded by historical conditions, the cotton revolution led to a prolonged phase (1300-1840 AD) of high earnings mostly for women, and wives often became families' main income earners. This is especially true with cotton weaving, the high-value stage of cotton textile production. I hypothesize that a major reversal in earning powers between men and women, husbands and wives, eroded one of the more resilient cultural beliefs: men are more able than women.

To test my hypothesis, I focus on a period where economic gains from the cotton revolution already faded and use variation across 1,489 counties in cotton weaving. A key result is that premodern cotton weaving reduces gender-biased sex selection in modern China. This result is robust to instrumenting cotton weaving with the range of relative humidity within which cotton yarn can be smoothly woven into cotton cloth, and complemented by survey evidence on women being seen as more able.

To isolate the cultural channel, I concentrate on periods of strict state socialism, where both genders had similar economic opportunities and identical political and legal rights, and show that for married couples, premodern cotton weaving predicts a higher probability for the wife to be the head of the household. In addition, my results suggest that cultural beliefs about women are sticky and possibly binary: an increase in the economic value of work performed by women does not translate into one-on-one change in the cultural belief about women's ability; low-value work performed by women, such as cotton cultivation or hemp weaving, does not correct prenatal sex selection.

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