There’s much debate about why women in some countries are presidents and business executives, and women in others are locked up in the home and beaten or brutalized if they try to stand up for themselves. Obviously the differences are rooted in culture, but there are diverse theories about why some cultures resulted in more emancipated women and others in more oppressed women.
One theory, which originated with Ester Boserup in 1970, is that it has to do with the emergence of the plow in agriculture. The idea is that in areas (such as Africa or southern India) where plows were little used, women engaged in agriculture and became important to the economy. They became valued by society to some degree. In contrast, where the plow was introduced, such as northern India and parts of the Middle East, women could not compete so readily because plowing required great physical strength. The result was that women were relegated to work in the home, were valued less, and even today women have less labor force participation in those countries.
This issue is the topic of a thoughtful new paper and Aid Watch blog post. Apparently there’s a correlation between plow use and the marginalization of women, and it makes sense to me. But I also think much depends on whether women were part of the cash and trading economy: where they were, they had more economic value, while where they grew vegetables for subsistence they had less value. I also look at China, and it’s not apparent to me that there’s any correlation in terms of the status of women with those parts where the plow was used and those where it wasn’t.
Why Are Women in Some Countries Oppressed? - NYTimes.com