The Interrelationships between Female Autonomy, Empowerment and Demographic Change: Some Unexpected Pointers from History

Alaka Malwade Basu, Cornell University

This paper reexamines the interrelations between gender and demographic behavior in the contemporary world by looking at these relations in the past in today’s industrialized world. While analyses on developing countries conclude that demographic change comes with increasing ‘autonomy’ of women, the historical literature on social change in the developed world is more ambiguous. The new emphasis on women during the 17th to 19th centuries both idealizes the mother and makes a martyr of her. I juxtapose evidence of changes in women’s autonomy in the industrialized countries with changes in child mortality to conclude that it was social change which increased the constraints on women’s lives that accompanied (and probably contributed to) better child survival. I extrapolate from this to ask whether the link between our standard measure of female autonomy and child health could also be interpreted to imply a relationship between decreasing empowerment and declining mortality and fertility.

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Presented in Session 167: Gender in Developing Countries