One of the most persistent institutions in human history is that of dowries: the exchange of money or other items of value between a bride’s family and the groom’s. When economies were primarily agricultural, inheritance and other methods of property transmission between families was of primary importance. 

Dowries were a method by which families could give women their inheritance. An article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives by Siwan Anderson on historic dowry practices noted that:

“A strong link exists between women’s rights to inherit property and the receipt of a dowry. This is seen in ancient Rome, medieval western Europe, and the Byzantine Empire. Studies have also emphasized the similarity between the amounts of dowry given to daughters and inheritances awarded to sons… Average dowries in Renaissance Tuscany corresponded to between 55 and 80 percent of a son’s inheritance. Dowries in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century colonial Brazil could amount to more than double that of the inheritance to each heir.”

Dowries have tended to be common in monogamous societies with a high level of social stratification, according to Anderson’s studies of global practices. As status and financial clout derives from land and family connection in such societies, marriage takes on a higher importance, as does the prevention of divorce and the careful regulation of the legitimacy of children. Dowries were (and are in the parts of the world that still practice it) a market coordination system for matching potential partners together to form families. In older legal systems, sons, daughters, and wives in particular had limited legal rights to familial property. People and their skills were also far less valuable in pre-industrial civilization, as value derived mostly from land and livestock. 

The system of dowries and inheritance created incentives for children, whose lives revolved around working on the family farm, to enhance the value of the family estate until they either married or left it. Because the children could expect to gain a large payout upon either becoming married or upon the deaths of the parents, it gave younger family members a forward ownership stake. Dowries also made it financially feasible for lesser sons who might not inherit much of the estate to form their own independent households —  without the financial stake from the bride’s family, independence might not otherwise have been possible. 

Portrait of Arranged Marriage in Russia. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

As agricultural production gave way to the industrial economy, the economic importance of the extended family as an economic unit began to decrease. The same need that previously existed to coordinate brides and grooms remained, while the practice of dowry declined. Land and the inheritance thereof became far less important in a more bourgeois era, in which access to good jobs (a share in the profits of production) or ownership of the means of production eclipsed the old ways of life. 

Nevertheless, dowries and related customs continue in some parts of the world. In countries like India and Bangladesh, along with regions of the Middle East and North Africa, arranged marriages, dowries, and bride prices remain popular methods of matching husbands with wives. 

In modern China, the consequences of various policies and cultural practices have led to failures in the marriage market for both genders. A recent article in Quartz discusses the re-emergence of bride price — which, in history, has usually occurred in polygamous societies that have greater competition for brides —  citing prices in excess of $16,000 in Shanghai, along with additional requirements for the quality of the groom. In China’s case, the economic impetus for this comes from the lingering demographic impacts of the one-child policy, and sex-selective abortion practices that families adopted in response to it. The current male to female ratio in China is 1.12 -- an identical ratio to that of India and Vietnam. 

Education as a Substitute for Dowries

In other parts of the world, like like the US, dowries have evaporated. In the late 19th century, educational achievement, particularly for women, began to perform some of the match-making functions previously performed by the dowry system. Instead of familial exchange, families attempted to enhance the value of their daughters on the marriage market by inculcating them with knowledge, some practical skill, and moral education. 

St. Benedict’s, a late 19th century finishing school, described its curriculum

“Elocution, Algebra one-third through. Church History half through. Religion, Physical Geography, Ancient History half through. Hygiene, Rhetoric, Drawing. Logic, natural philosophy, bookkeeping, geometry, and botany.”

Daughters of farmers could either not afford tuition or the lost labor of their children. The students of St. Benedict’s and other schools like it was largely made up of the nascent middle class. One student’s father, however, paid tuition by bartering two cows, some meat, and other goods in return for his daughter’s attendance. 

In the United States, the Seven Sisters — the all-female liberal arts colleges of Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe, Smith, Wellesley, Vassar, and Mount Holyoke — all performed a role at a small but influential scale. Unlike finishing schools, those universities had a goal of educating women to the same level as university-taught men. The goals of these universities was — and is — motivated by egalitarian ideals, rather than marriage preparation.

Print of Bryn Mawr Station. Image Credit: Wikipedia

In the words of M. Carey Thomas, the founder of Bryn Mawr:

“Given two bridge-builders, a man and a woman, given a certain bridge to be built, and given as always the unchangeable laws of mechanics... it is simply inconceivable that the preliminary instruction given to the two bridge-builders should differ in quantity, quality, or method of presentation because while the bridge is building one will wear knickerbockers and the other a rainy-day skirt.”

There was push-back. Edward Clarke, a professor at Harvard University, argued against higher education for women, citing that it impeded their ability to become excellent wives and mothers. 

Clarke wrote: 

“Appropriate education of the two sexes, carried as far as possible, is a consummation most devoutly to be desired; identical education of the two sexes is a crime before God and humanity, that physiology protests against, and that experience weeps over… It cultivates mediocrity, and cheats the future of its rightful legacy of lofty manhood and womanhood. It emasculates boys, stunts girls; makes semi-eunuchs of one sex, and agenesis of the other.” 

He argued from a 19th century doctor’s perspective that educating women in the same manner as men damaged their physical health and produced poor outcomes for both genders. 

By the 1940s and 50s, however, the function of higher education for women backslid closer to its origins in the finishing schools of the mid to late 19th century. A popular advice manual published in 1951 told young women that “If you are a girl and want to get married, your best bet is a coeducational college.”

Rather than providing dowries to their daughters to enhance their attractiveness to potential partners, the more well-to-do families instead sublimated that economic impulse into educating their daughters, and sending them to institutions where they would be more likely to meet potential husbands of their class. As this trend developed, families increasingly began to cut out the middle-man institution.

Betty Friedan, in her landmark popular essay The Problem That Has No Name, wrote:

“By the end of the nineteen-fifties, the average marriage age of women in America dropped to 20, and was still dropping, into the teens. Fourteen million girls were engaged by 17. The proportion of women attending college in comparison with men dropped from 47% in 1920 to 35% in 1958. A century earlier, women had fought for higher education; now girls went to college to get a husband. By the mid-fifties, 60% dropped out of college to marry, or because they were afraid too much education would be a marriage bar. Colleges built dormitories for ‘married students,’ but the students were almost always the husbands…”

Those female drop-out rates, cited by Friedan, indicated that the female portion of co-ed enrollment was using the system not to attain the equality hoped for by M. Carey Thomas, but to pursue favorable marriages.

The cultural changes of the 1960s and 1970s, along with the legal banning of discrimination against women in hiring mandated by the Civil Rights Act of 1963, drastically impacted the role of women in society, more than doubling the female labor force participation rate between 1955 and 1995.

At the same time, according to the US census, the average age of female marriage rose from under 21 in 1950 to about 27 in 2010. According to Pew Research, the economics of marriage has also substantially changed over time. In 1970, just 4% of wives topped the income of their husbands. In 2007, about 22% of wives earned more than their husbands. 

Although colleges are no longer seen as institutions for women to find husbands, graduating from college greatly enhances their chances of becoming and remaining married. In 2007, 69% of college graduates were married to just 56% of non-college graduates. In the United States, since the mid-1990s, women have out-attained men in bachelor’s degrees by a substantial level. They are more likely to finish college than men and account for three-fifths of all graduate students.

The situation that Friedan decried has gone through a gender inversion, as men drop out of higher education in large numbers rather than the reverse. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before men start paying dowries to marry women.

This post was written by contributor JC HewittTo get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.

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