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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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What is Wrong with Men’s Clothing

Men's Clothing

Clothes make the man in respects more vital than mere appearance and social acceptability. It is true that a slender man looks more stout in a double-breasted coat, or that suiting with a vertical stripe makes the short man look taller. But these are not especially vital factors. Research and scientific opinion are rapidly accumulating data which indicate rather definitely that clothing may almost remake the course of human history.

This newer knowledge helps one understand why we make more mistakes in summer, why usually sensible Germany has a growing number of nude societies, why the Alps are healthful, how to keep cool in summer; and it also makes us pause and wonder about man’s place in the decades to come.

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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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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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How the Spacesuit Was Designed?

Apollo 11: Buzz Aldrin on the Moon

Nicholas de Monchaux is an architect, historian, and educator based in Berkeley, California. His work spans a huge range of topics and scales, as his new and utterly fascinating book, Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, makes clear.

From the fashionable worlds of Christian Dior and Playtex to the military-industrial complex working overtime on efforts to create a protective suit for U.S. exploration of the moon, and from early computerized analyses of urban management to an “android” history of the French court, all by way of long chapters on the experimental high-flyers and military theorists who collaborated to push human beings further and further above the weather—and eventually off the planet itself—de Monchaux’s book shows the often shocking juxtapositions that give such rich texture and detail to the invention of the spacesuit: pressurized clothing for human survival in space.

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How Textiles Repeatedly Revolutionised Human Technology

textiles thread

In February 1939, Vogue ran a major feature on the fashions of the future. Inspired by the soon-to-open New York World’s Fair, the magazine asked nine industrial designers to imagine what the people of ‘a far Tomorrow’ might wear and why. (The editors deemed fashion designers too of-the-moment for such speculations.) A mock‑up of each outfit was manufactured and photographed for a lavish nine-page colour spread.

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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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