Dutch Divergence? Women’s work, structural change, and household living standards in the Netherlands, 1830-1914

Corinne Boter

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU

Abstract

Women’s work has never been a linear process of extending participation. Instead, female labour force participation (FLFP) has extended and curtailed throughout time. This dissertation studies a period of contraction: the nineteenth-century Netherlands. This country makes an important case study to explore the factors influencing the trajectory of women’s work. First, FLFP rates as recorded in occupational censuses were low compared with surrounding countries. Second, Dutch industrialization took off relatively late and until well into the twentieth century a significant part of the labour force worked in agriculture, in contrast to neighbouring countries such as Britain and Belgium.

This dissertation contributes to answering the following question: Why were Dutch female labour force participation rates lower than in surrounding countries during the period 1830-1914? I consider the following explanatory factors: social norms, the opportunity costs of women’s labour, and structural change. My conclusions about the relative weight of each factor are as follows. First, social norms regarding women’s role within the household following from the growing desire for domesticity have affected the trajectory of women’s labour. I show that married women withdrew from the registered labour force and instead, performed work that could be combined with domestic chores and that remained invisible in most statistical sources. However, these social norms were likewise strong in other western European countries, such as Britain, where FLFP was higher. Furthermore, Dutch FLFP was already low around 1850 when the transition to the male breadwinner society in western Europe started. Thus, it is no conclusive explanation for the aberrant Dutch trend in FLFP.

Second, men’s real industrial wages started to rise after 1880 and became increasingly able to take care of a family of four. However, this was not true for men’s agricultural wages. Women’s wages in both sectors hardly increased at all during the nineteenth century in both sectors. I therefore conclude that industrial households were already able to realize a breadwinner-homemaker type of labour division from the 1880s, whereas agricultural households still relied for an important part on other sources of income besides the husband’s wage labour by 1910. Thus, men’s wages profoundly influenced household labour division. However, in Britain, men’s real wages were even higher, but so were FLFP rates in the censuses. Thus, if the extent of men’s real wages was indeed the most important explanatory factor, we would have expected even lower participation rates in Britain than in the Netherlands.

Third, the impact of economic structure and the changing demand for labour on FLFP has been a pivotal factor of influence. I show that the structure of the local economy had a statistically significant effect on the chance that a bride stated an occupation in her marriage record. Furthermore, in agriculture women increasingly performed work in a private business which was usually not registered in the censuses. Moreover, technological change in the textile industry and the transition to the factory system negatively impacted women’s position in the labour market because married women could no longer combine domestic chores with wage labour. Finally, many parts of the production process that had traditionally been women’s work were taken over by men when mechanization progressed.

Considering all my research results, I conclude that the structure of the Dutch economy is the most important explanation for the exceptionally low Dutch FLFP rates during the long nineteenth century.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
Supervisors/Advisors
  • Frankema, Ewout, Promotor
  • van Nederveen Meerkerk, E.J.V., Co-promotor
Award date16 Jun 2017
Place of PublicationWageningen
Publisher
Print ISBNs9789463431835
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2017

Keywords

  • women
  • work
  • household budgets
  • living standards
  • gender
  • cultural history
  • case studies
  • netherlands
  • labour market
  • macroeconomics
  • microeconomics
  • western europe
  • work sharing
  • participation

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  • Projects

    The Dynamics of the Household. Labour division in Dutch households 1830-1940

    Boter, C., Frankema, E. & van Nederveen Meerkerk, E.

    1/01/1316/06/17

    Project: PhD

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