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

Xue, Melanie Meng (2018): High-Value Work and the Rise of Women: The Cotton Revolution and Gender Equality in China*.

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Abstract

This paper studies a unique historical experiment: the cotton revolution and its impact on the emergence of gender-equitable beliefs. The cotton revolution led to a prolonged phase (1300-1840 AD) of high productivity for women. I hypothesize that a substantial, long-standing increase in relative female income eroded a highly resilient cultural belief: women are less capable than men. I examine a period when economic gains from the cotton revolution faded. Using variation across 1,489 counties in cotton spinning and weaving, I find that the cotton revolution reduces sex selection. This result is supported by survey evidence on gender equitable beliefs. I instrument cotton weaving with the range of relative humidity within which cotton yarn can be smoothly woven into cloth. I document an initial impact of the cotton revolution on widow suicides. To isolate the cultural channel, I examine the effects of the cotton revolution under post-1949 state socialism, where both genders had similar economic opportunities, political and legal rights, and show that pre-1840 cotton weaving predicts a higher probability for the wife to head the household. I document the distinctive role of high-value work in the perception of women. Low-value work performed by women, such as cotton cultivation, does not correct prenatal sex selection.

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