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Cotton Textile Production In Medieval China Unravelled Patriarchy

Detail of the central embroidery work of a woman’s summer robe, c1875–1900.

Many societies suffer from the notion that women are less intelligent and capable than men. Even in more economically developed countries, where women have in the past two centuries won a variety of political and economic rights, prejudice against women remains relatively common. So where does this belief come from? Is it possible for it to change?

The anthropologist Marvin Harris argued in Culture, People, Nature (1975) that male dominance initially gained credibility through male strength and men’s comparative advantage in warfare. Then, as professional soldiers took over warfare, inequalities between men and women became a matter of their relative contributions to economic production.

In China, as in much of the preindustrial world, women carried out most of the textile production. These women producers spent ‘every available moment’, in the words of E J W Barber’s book Prehistoric Textiles (1991), engaged in spinning, weaving and sewing textiles. Before the advent of cotton production, silk and hemp were the two main fabrics used for clothing. The cotton revolution in China started in 1300. The adoption of more advanced spinning and weaving technologies, in conjunction with a preexisting trade network throughout China, led to the production and exchange of cotton textiles on an immense scale. By 1840, cotton textiles accounted for a quarter of domestic trade.

The rise of cotton in China brought about a ‘golden age’ for women’s incomes. In this respect, it resembled proto-industrialisation in Europe and early industrialisation in early America. The difference is that, in the earliest industrialisations in Europe and the US, the period when women derived decent incomes from producing textiles lasted for merely one or two generations. In China, it was different. Cotton-textile production in China catalysed a very high level of female earnings for almost 500 years. A combination of home-friendly production methods, inefficient labour markets, and a state taxation system all contributed to this long period of high earnings for women.

In my research, I ask: did the cotton revolution affect cultural beliefs about women? The historian Kenneth Pomeranz has discussed how the elevated status of women in certain regions produced an ‘economics of respectability’. A woman who earned enough to support her family could be referred to, by others or herself, as a ‘she-husband’. Widows in areas suitable for cotton-textile production were far less likely to end their life upon the passing of their husbands.

Was this a long-lasting change or just a temporary adjustment to women’s enhanced earning ability? This question can be answered only by examining how women were treated after the demise of the premodern textiles industry. After 1840, traditional cotton-textile production became less economically relevant due to intense competition from British imports. In one of the earliest surveys available on the subject, when asked about their attitudes towards women, both men and women in counties with premodern cotton-textile production were much more likely to think that women were just as competent as men. Interestingly, the difference in the belief about women’s ability does not extend to some other modern gender norms. For example, Chinese women’s economic independence does not seem to alter conservative attitudes towards marriage or premarital sex.

To measure the legacy of cotton-textile production in China, I examined data on the sex ratio at birth (SRB, or the number of boys born per 100 girls) in China in 2000. The prevalent use of ultrasound screening from the 1990s onwards meant that many Chinese parents could effectively sex-select their children. In 2000, the average SRB in China was 118 boys per 100 girls, but areas with a history of premodern cotton-textile production had a lower SRB. Specifically, the average SRB in cotton-textile producing areas was 114 boys per 100 girls, reflecting a lower occurrence of sex-selective abortion.

One possibility is that parents had been performing sex-selective abortion based on the expected economic value of having a boy or a girl. However, there is little evidence that women today are a better economic bet for parents in countries that once produced cotton textiles. In the 2000 census, premodern cotton-textile production did not predict either the level of female labour-force participation, or the number of hours that women worked. This highlights the non-economic channels, such as culture, that underlie the effects of premodern cotton-textile production on sex-selective abortion.

Perhaps even more strikingly, where state socialism made economic opportunities and legal rights virtually identical for married men and married women, premodern cotton-textile production is linked to a higher likelihood for the wife to be the head of the household. In this context of state socialism, household head status conveyed no information about physical ownership of property, but rather, reflected information about the role of the husband vs the wife in the household. Not surprisingly, most of the households opted for male heads of household. The fact that married couples were more likely to agree on having the wife as the household head if they were from an area that formerly had cotton-textile production suggests that there is long-term cultural change from women’s economic agency.

Economists have been asking why the gender wage gap persists for decades. Answers range from theories or suggestions that men are more productive than women; notions that men and women vary in important behavioural traits that have consequences for their earnings; and that there exists a set of beliefs and attitudes that systematically disadvantage women. Recent studies have shown that certain aspects of gender norms and gender roles, such as the gender-identity norm, are extremely resilient.

Using a detailed historical case – the cotton revolution in China – we can see that patriarchal beliefs are indeed highly resilient but also that they can be transformed by a sufficiently large increase in women’s productivity. The image of highly productive women positively shapes cultural beliefs about women’s ability, and then translates into a more positive view about women in general.

More broadly, although economic forces do not dictate a value system, there is potential for economic forces to transform the value system. This includes one of the most resilient elements of a value system – beliefs and attitudes towards women.

This article was originally published at Aeon by Melanie Meng Xue and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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Why Saris are Indian Material Culture

indian sari

Every time a woman drapes a sari anywhere in the world, she is creating Indian material culture. Both the weaver and the wearer are considered to be artists. To understand why folklorist Pravina Shukla calls it Indian material culture1, it helps to examine how saris are made, sold, and worn.

To begin with, one never cuts or stitches a sari. It’s a single woven length, and comes off of the loom ready to wear. This represents purity and unity. Variations come in with the color, weave, and drape technique. Some examples include the red-bordered saris from West Bengal, the brocaded saris from Banaras, and the Boggili Posi Kattukodam pleated drape from Andhra Pradesh. There were times in history when a woman brought her own weavers as part of her marriage dowry because her saris were part of her identity.

Since weavers create the textile and wearers assemble it, the creation of the sari is a collaborative effort, supported by an industry that includes technology (looms), technicians, and salespeople.

Between 1996 and 2003, Shukla studied the connection between handlooms (technology), sari makers (producers), and sari wearers (consumers) in the ancient city of Banaras. Banaras handlooms combine the Indian pit loom and the nineteenth-century French Jacquard loom. Master weavers and their apprentices use three pedals and “perforated cards that control the design” to weave gold-brocaded weft into silk. A sari like this takes one-and-a-half to two weeks to make; many brides choose these to wear for their weddings.

The traditional sari buying process can take several visits to the shops. Women come in groups, and sit and drink tea while shopkeepers show them new collections. Their comments influence future designs. Different social classes and different religions all come together; Shukla goes as far as to say that it helps to “create social order.1

This explains mounting concern about the disappearance of handloom weavers and related skilled jobs, like spinners, weavers, printers, dyers, card-makers, and designers. When competition from powerlooms and imports forces handloom weavers out of business, it impacts a rare and rich cultural history. Economist P. Dharmaraju has found, however, “large local demand for traditional handloom products.2” Handloom weavers can stay in business by joining in cooperatives. Modern websites show women different ways to drape their saris in an effort to keep the sari current.

As an art form and material culture, the sari is a symbol of Indian culture that has lasted for over a millennium.

References:

  1. Shukla, Pravina. “Evaluating Saris: Social Tension and Aesthetic Complexity in the Textile of Modern India.” Western Folklore 67, no. 2/3 (2008): 163-178.
  2. Dharmaraju, P. “Marketing in Handloom Cooperatives.” Economic and Political Weekly (2006): 3385-3387.

First published on February 23, 2018 in JSTOR Daily by Cynthia Green

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The Psychology of Clothes

Suri tribesmen Kibbish

In addition to the environment in which man is placed by nature, without any participation on his part, he creates himself another, which is generally called the “cultural world.” When we consider the human being in this cultural world, we see that of all its multitudinous cultural forms his dress is not only the one which is physically closest to him but also that which most immediately and most intimately expresses his relation to the environment. Not even the cultural forms assumed by man’s most elementary vital activities, such as nutrition and reproduction, are so directly and so constantly interwoven with human life and the human body as dress is, except as they express themselves through it.

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Fashion’s Potential to Influence Politics and Culture

The Black Panther Party

Political dressing is fashionable right now, but is it fashion? Celebrities and stars turned up dressed in black at the 75th Golden Globes Award ceremony. Instantly the media was in frenzy over what they dubbed “political fashion statements on the red carpet.” This is just the most recent droplet of a rainy season of purportedly political fashion.

It all started with the pantsuit parties in solidarity with U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016. It then progressed with white supremacists uniformed in polos and khaki during their infamous Charlottesville demonstrations last year.

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Why Fashion Keeps Tripping Over Race

the black allure by emma summerton vogue italia

The guests at the Lanvin show in Paris had all been waiting more than an hour for the presentation to begin, and they were getting restless. This tardiness was out of character for Alber Elbaz, widely considered to be one of the most talented designers around—as well as among the most hospitable. He refrains from trussing models into unforgiving silhouettes that prohibit walking and make the consumption of anything more caloric than Saltines a wild-eyed risk.

It would turn out that the reason for the delay of his spring 2011 show was a matter of shoes. Elbaz’s original choreography had the models sashaying down a concrete walkway, about the length of a New York City block, wearing perilous stilettos. Apparently, during rehearsals, the skyscraper heels brought some of the models to tears. So Elbaz dispatched staff to retrieve kinder footwear. The result was a tardy show, but a beautiful one, with virtually half the models—an ethnically diverse lot—in flats.

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Dress for Evolutionary Success

Dress for Evolutionary Success

Picture one of those ascent-of-man charts that depict a progression of profiles, from an ape walking on all fours to a slumped hominid to a modern human standing erect. What’s missing? The modern human is naked. No accessories!

We may not find a chapter on fashion in science textbooks but ornamentation and tailoring have played feature roles in our success as a species. On the prehistoric catwalks we creamed the Neanderthal competition on both functionality and style and went on to become the dominant hominid in virtually every climate zone on earth.

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