How Markets Empower Women: Innovation and Market Participation Transform Women’s Lives for the Better

CATO – over the last 200 years, economic progress has helped to bring about both dramatically better standards of living and the extension of individual dignity to women in the developed world. Today the same story of market-driven empowerment is repeating itself in developing countries.

Competitive markets empower women in at least two interrelated ways. First, market-driven technological and scientific innovations disproportionately benefit women. Timesaving household devices, for example, help women in particular because they typically perform the majority of housework. Healthcare advances reduce maternal and infant mortality rates, allowing for smaller family sizes and expansion of women’s life options. Second, labor market participation offers women economic independence and increased bargaining power in society. Factory work, despite its poor reputation, has proven particularly important in that regard.

In these ways, markets heighten women’s material standard of living and foster cultural change. Markets promote individual empowerment, reducing sexism and other forms of collective prejudice.

Women’s empowerment in many developing countries is in its early phases, but the right policies can set women everywhere on a path toward the same prosperity and freedom enjoyed by women in today’s advanced countries.

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Women’s empowerment and gender equality have become mainstream aspects of international development discourse.1 Markets help achieve those goals. Markets played a vital role in empowering the women of the West historically and continue to empower increasing numbers of women around the world today.

A review of the development literature suggests that “gender inequality declines as poverty declines, so the condition of women improves more than that of men with development.”2In other words, women stand to gain more from prosperity than men.

Markets empower women in at least two interrelated ways. First, markets have produced timesaving and health-related innovations that have disproportionately benefited women. Second, labor market participation offers women economic independence and heightened bargaining power. These modes of empowerment reinforce each other.

Laborsaving innovations shifted the traditionally female burden of housework onto machines, freeing women’s time. Medical advances provided by free enterprise have lengthened women’s lives and increased their children’s likelihood of survival, allowing for smaller family sizes. As a result, women have more time to pursue their ambitions: more life years, and more years for activities other than childrearing. They also have more time for leisure, making their lives more pleasant.

Labor market participation, in which firms compete for women’s labor, allows women to accumulate money and increase their bargaining power both in society and in their households. Such participation also speeds economic growth and innovation in a virtuous cycle by creating a larger labor force.3 Traditionally, the coercive power of the state, being primarily an expression of male preferences, often obstructed women’s labor market participation, limiting their activities to prescribed roles. Today, a growing number of women are free to make their own choices regarding family and career.


Market-driven innovations have had a positive effect on women’s lives. Medical innovations, and health improvements financed by the unprecedented prosperity generated by free enterprise and industrialization, have improved women’s overall health, including life expectancy, and impacted their fertility. Laborsaving technology has lessened women’s time spent doing household chores, such as cooking and laundry. Positive change is not limited to the past but is ongoing in developing countries today.

Market-Driven Health Improvements

Living conditions remained remarkably constant throughout most of history: poverty was ubiquitous. Then, around 200 years ago, economic growth started to accelerate, first in Great Britain and the Netherlands, then the rest of Western Europe and North America, and finally the rest of the world. Markets globalized in the 19th century, and the Industrial Revolution took productivity to new heights, causing the acceleration in economic growth and ultimately leading to widespread prosperity.

Similarly, human life expectancy — arguably the best overall measure of health — remained relatively flat throughout history until the late 1800s, when it began to rise.4 This “health transition” started in Europe and North America in the 1870s, and then spread to the rest of the world.

These striking improvements in income and health are related. Ample literature shows that, on average, people in wealthier countries outlive those in poorer countries, a relationship known as the Preston curve.5 While the strong correlation does not necessarily prove that higher income causes better health, it does show that “income must be important in some ways and at some times” to the improvement of health, according to Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton.6

As income grows, it pays for improved diets, housing, sanitation, and medicine, all of which affect health. Deaton attributes the rise in life expectancy primarily to innovations in urban sanitation and the discovery of the germ theory of disease, noting that the unprecedented wealth generated by the Industrial Revolution funded the construction of safe water supplies and sewage systems at a scale never before achieved.7 That decreased the rate of infant deaths in particular. As important as scientific advances were, it was rising market-driven prosperity that financed the public-health projects inspired by newfound scientific knowledge. “Turning the germ theory into safe water and sanitation … requires … money,” Deaton notes.8

It is true that the rapid urbanization during the Industrial Revolution initially raised the mortality rate because disease spreads more easily in concentrated populations without proper sanitation. However, since the 1870s the urban mortality rate has declined faster than the rural rate in the United States.9 City dwellers typically have higher incomes than their rural counterparts and better access to modern medicine. During the Industrial Revolution, some factories even offered their workers free vaccinations.10

Importantly, “all of the health transitions in all countries have been achieved since capitalism began,” and specific health-improving innovations such as vaccines “must at least in part be due to the conditions created by capitalism,” argues philosopher Ann E. Cudd of Boston University.11 Major improvements in longevity first occurred in rich countries only after the Industrial Revolution and advent of global trade accelerated economic growth. Even more rapid progress can be observed in developing countries today, as poor countries can adopt institutions and technologies from rich countries to hasten their progress in both economic development and health.

Women’s Health and Fertility in Historical Perspective. Health advances that the market helped enable have benefited women even more than men. Consider the history of women’s health.

The average hunter-gatherer woman probably had about four children, with typical intervals of four years between each child.12 That represents low fertility by the standards of the poorest countries today; prehistoric women’s high levels of physical exertion likely decreased the probability of conception.13 Paleopathologists estimate about 20 percent of children died before their first birthday.14 “Life expectancy at birth among hunter-gatherers was 20-30 years depending on local conditions,” according to Deaton.15

After agriculture’s invention, many people stopped living nomadically and built permanent settlements. Quality of life may have deteriorated for women, who went through more childbirths (which were dangerous) and saw more of their children die than their ancestors did because permanent settlements without proper waste disposal are a breeding ground for disease.16

By the year 1800, the typical U.S. woman bore seven children.17 On average, only four would survive to see their fifth birthday. The other three typically died from ailments that are easily preventable or curable today.

Yet by the 20th century women outlived men.18 As Figure 1 shows, the average number of a woman’s children that she had to bury fell from three in 1800 to two in 1850 and one in 1900.

Figure 1: Survival of children per woman in the United States, 1800-2015

Source: Max Roser, “Children that Died before 5 Years of Age per Woman (based on Gapminder), Children that Survived Past Their 5th Birthday per Woman,” Our World in Data,

The average U.S. woman today has two children and sees both survive to adulthood. Most families today have fewer children in part because they are confident that every child they bring into the world will live.

Not only do women have fewer and healthier children, but childbirth has become safer for mothers. Data for Sweden and Finland dating back to 1751 paint a grim picture: around 1,000 maternal deaths for every 100,000 births (see Figure 2). If a woman gave birth seven times, that entailed a 7 percent chance of her death in childbirth. At the time, the British colonies that would become the United States were poorer than Sweden and Finland and probably had an even higher maternal mortality rate.

Figure 2: Maternal mortality rate in selected countries, deaths per 100,000 births, 1751-2008

Source: Hans Rosling, “Maternal Mortality Ratio,” Gapminder,

In 1900, the U.S. rate of maternal death in childbirth was more than 800 per 100,000 births. Steven Pinker of Harvard University has noted, “for an American woman, being pregnant a century ago was almost as dangerous as having breast cancer today.”19 After a brief spike in 1918 during the practice of questionable medical techniques, the rate plummeted.20“[T]he reduction in maternal mortality in twentieth century America is one reason why women’s life expectancy has risen faster than men’s,” according to Deaton.21 Today, U.S. women rarely die in the delivery room.

As Figure 3 shows, a typical 20-year-old woman in the United States today can expect to live for more than 60 additional years. That is about 18 more years of life than a 20-year-old U.S. woman could expect two centuries ago.

Figure 3: A 20-year-old U.S. woman’s average years of remaining life, 1795-2013

Source: Michael R. Haines and Richard H. Steckel, eds., A Population History of North America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); E. Arias, M. Heron, and J. Xu, “United States Life Tables, 2013,” National vital statistics reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics System 66.3 (2017): 1; Clayne L. Pope “Adult Mortality in America before 1900: A View from Family Histories” in Strategic Factors in Nineteenth Century American Economic History: A Volume to Honor Robert W. Fogel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008); and Kent Kunze, “The Effects of Age Composition and Changes in Vital Rates on Nineteenth Century Population Estimates from New Data,” (PhD diss., Department of Economics, University of Utah, 1979).

The same progress is now unfolding in developing countries.

Women’s Health and Fertility in Developing Countries. Practically everywhere, women outlive men and the number of children per woman has decreased. As people escape poverty throughout the world, their children are more likely to survive, allowing for smaller families — a phenomenon called the fertility transition.

It is almost unheard of for a country to maintain a high fertility rate after it passes about $5,000 in per person annual income.22 “The average Bangladeshi woman can now expect to have about the same number of children as the average Frenchwoman,” observed TheEconomist in 2016, and even in Africa, the poorest continent, fertility rates are falling.23 In the very poorest countries, women often have more children than they say they want, but having more children than desired may be a strategy adopted in reaction to higher rates of child mortality: if a woman wants two children but has reason to believe that half of her children will die in infancy, she may plan to have four children rather than two. For example, the average Nigerian still expects to have about three more children than she ultimately desires.24 As children’s odds of survival improve, such an insurance strategy becomes unnecessary.

Smaller family sizes have freed women’s time, enabling mothers to devote more attention to each individual child, further decreasing an infant’s chance of death, while allowing women to take on pursuits such as paid employment. In developing countries today, women’s rising educational attainment and earning power boost their children’s probability of survival still further.25

Death in childbirth has become rarer practically everywhere on Earth, even in developing countries. As can be seen in Figure 2, in a few decades Malaysia made the same progress against death in childbirth that the currently rich countries took multiple centuries to achieve. Malaysia’s case is not unusual.

“That India today has higher life expectancy than Scotland in 1945 — in spite of per capita income that Britain had achieved as early as 1860 — is a testament to the power of knowledge to short-circuit history,” argues Deaton.26 Today, progress is ongoing, as piped water, improved sanitation facilities, vaccinations, and other health innovations spread throughout developing countries.

In sum, the unprecedented rise in prosperity, medical understanding, and innovation over the last two centuries has bettered women’s health dramatically and continues to do so in poor countries today. Innovations created in rich countries are being adopted by poor countries, enabling them to achieve better health outcomes more quickly.

Cooking: Full-Time Job to Hobby

As with medical advancements, technological innovations have further advanced opportunities for today’s women. Cooking has traditionally fallen to women, and so timesaving and laborsaving kitchen devices primarily benefit women. Over time, markets have brought about and lowered the cost of such innovations as microwaves, convection ovens, ranges, grills, toasters, blenders, food processors, slow cookers, and other laborsaving kitchen devices.27 Markets have also given more women more access to ready-made foodstuffs, so each dish does not have to be prepared entirely from scratch. Thanks to such advancements, cooking has changed from a necessary, labor-intensive task to an optional and recreational activity in rich countries, and that transition is ongoing in the developing countries.

Women’s Escape from the Kitchen in the United States. “In 1900 a typical American household of the middle class would spend 44 hours [a week] in food preparation,” according to economist Stanley Lebergott of Wesleyan University.28 Most of that work fell to women. In other words, back in the days of churning one’s own butter and baking one’s own bread, food preparation consumed as much time as a full-time job. In addition to cooking, women were also often responsible for cleaning the home, washing laundry and hanging it out to dry, sewing and mending clothes, and tending to children.

In 1910, Lebergott estimates that U.S. households spent approximately six hours daily cooking meals, including cleanup. By the mid-1960s, that had fallen to 1.5 hours.29

By 2008, the average low-income American spent just over an hour on food preparation each day and the average high-income American spent slightly less than an hour daily.30Disaggregating the data by gender reveals even more progress for women. In the United States, from the mid-1960s to 2008, women more than halved the amount of time they spent on food preparation, whereas men nearly doubled time spent on that activity, as household labor distributions became more equitable between genders.

Mass production of everyday foodstuffs assisted this transformation of women’s time. In 1890, 90 percent of American women baked their own bread.31 Missouri’s Chillicothe Baking Company started offering the luxury of factory-baked, presliced bread in 1928, and other companies soon offered competing products. By 1965, 78 out of every 100 pounds of flour a U.S. woman brought into her kitchen came in the form of baked bread or some other ready-prepared good.32 Today, baking one’s own bread in the United States is a hobby, rather than a necessary routine.

Markets have even produced grocery delivery services that bring food to one’s door with the tap of a smartphone application. Market processes also lowered the cost of dining out, and today Americans spend more money dining out than eating in.33

Ongoing Escape from the Kitchen in Developing Countries. The liberation of women from hours upon hours in the kitchen is ongoing, as technological devices and mass-produced goods spread to new parts of the globe. Worldwide, as many as 55 percent of households still cook entirely from raw ingredients at least once a week. In China, that number is as high as 71 percent.34

A 2015 survey found that average hours spent cooking are as high as 13.2 hours per week in India, and 8.3 hours in Indonesia, compared to 5.9 hours in the United States.35 That is only among those who regularly cook. If a higher percentage of Indians than Americans engage in that activity, it is likely that the actual disparity between the two countries’ average hours devoted to food preparation is larger.

While a gap in time spent on food preparation remains between rich and poor countries, today even in India — the poorest country surveyed, and the one with the highest reported average food preparation hours — women devote almost 31 fewer hours to food preparation per week than U.S. women did in 1900. Even allowing for compatibility problems in comparing those figures (the estimate for 1900 included cleanup time, whereas the Indian women surveyed in 2015 were not asked to include cleanup time and so may have excluded time spent on cleanup in their answers), the sheer size of this difference suggests some degree of improvement. A separate survey of Chinese households found that average time spent on food preparation by women declined from more than 5 hours per day in 1989 to 1.2 hours in 2011 (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: Time spent on food preparation by Chinese women, hours per day, 1989-2011

Source: “China Health and Nutrition Survey,” University of North Carolina Population Center,

Much room for improvement remains. In 2017, only 0.5 percent of Chinese households and 1.8 percent of Indian households had a dishwasher, compared to 71 percent of U.S. households.36 In 2017, 42 percent of Chinese households and just 17 percent of Indian households had a microwave, compared to 96 percent of U.S. households. Euromonitor’s Passport Global Market Information Database holds that only 32 percent of Indian households had a refrigerator in 2017.37

As prosperity spreads and poverty declines, kitchen gadgets and ready-made goods will free up more hours of women’s food preparation time around the world. Other innovations will similarly free women from other time-consuming tasks, such as laundry.

Washing: a Full Day to an Hour a Week

Economist Ha-Joon Chang at the University of Cambridge has argued that “the laundry machine has changed the world more than the internet has,” and for women, that may be true.38 Market innovations ranging from the invention of detergent to ever-more-helpful laundry and drying machines transformed the chore of laundry from a dreadful undertaking to a minor inconvenience in the rich countries. Today, that story is ongoing throughout the developing world.

Liberation from Laundry in Historical Perspective. The effect of the washing machine’s arrival in the rich countries as an “engine of liberation” for women, the traditional doers of housework, has been well-documented.39 Writer Bill Bryson described the dismal task of laundry in 19th-century England in his book At Home: A Short History of Private Life:


Published December 17 by CATO

Written By Chelsea Follett