Friday, March 04, 2011

On changing demographics and the role of women

I wanted to highlight the latest post at Behind the Numbers "What’s Changed (or Not) for Women Since the First International Women’s Day 100 Years Ago?". The demographics of different communities around the world were very different from the way they were no, not least because of the substantially inferior status of women. How different were they?

In 1911, the U.S. population was 92 million, less than one-third of its current size of about 310 million. Life expectancy was 54 years for women and 51 for men. The leading cause of death, after heart disease, was tuberculosis. And 1 in 10 children died before his or her first birthday. Our U.S. statistics of 100 years ago are much like those of sub-Saharan Africa today.

In 1911, the global population was 1.8 billion, and today it has nearly quadrupled to 7 billion. Sub-Saharan Africa remains the fastest growing region of the world and 42 percent of women in the region are under the age of 15 (compared with 19 percent in the United States). [. . .] Women in sub-Saharan Africa give birth to an average of 5.2 children each, in comparison to U.S. women who today have an average of 2 children each.

In 1911, men in the United States were five times as likely as women to be gainfully employed. And child labor was common: 26 percent of boys and 10 percent of girls ages 10 to 15 were employed as “breadwinners.” Based on the higher levels of employment among boys, perhaps it is not surprising that three times as many girls as boys were enrolled in school. In 1911, U.S. women were more likely to have graduated from high school than men, but less than one-third of college graduates were women. Today, women outnumber men on college campuses in the United States. In developing countries, great strides have been made in girls’ education at the primary level, but less so at the secondary level. Sub-Saharan Africa lags behind the rest of the world, with only 34 percent of women enrolled in secondary school, and a far smaller percentage enrolled in college or professional schooling beyond high school.

Nearly half of all wage earners in the United States are women, but among full time workers, they earn only 80 percent of what men earn. Women in the United States hold only 17 percent of public office seats at the federal level, far lower than in most regions of the world, and even slightly lower than in sub-Saharan Africa, where women hold 18 percent of parliamentary seats.

By 1911, women in the United States had, on average, only 3.4 births each. How this was accomplished in the absence of widespread availability of birth control is not entirely clear, but condoms were available, as were “traditional” methods – withdrawal and periodic abstinence. The diaphragm, the first manufactured contraceptive method for women, was not widely known or available at that time because the federal Comstock Laws of 1873 made it illegal to send any “obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious” materials through the mail, including contraceptive devices and information. The Comstock Laws as they affected the sale and distribution of contraception were not overturned until 1936. By 1940, a third of all U.S. women used a diaphragm for contraception. Today, 79 percent of American women use a method of contraception, compared with only 23 percent of women in sub-Saharan Africa. Few women on either continent rely on a diaphragm, despite its demonstrated safety and efficacy, even in low resource settings.

It's worth noting that the position of women and the state of the demographic transition in the United States--and other relatively advanced societies--had come substantially from the dire demographics of the pre-modern era I'd written about earlier. In Michael Haines' essay "Fertility and Mortality in the United States", the extent of change from the 18th century was substantial.

The high fertility of American women attracted comment from late eighteenth-century observers, including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Malthus. Mortality rates were probably moderate, with crude death rates ranging from about twenty per one thousand people per annum to over forty. We know a good deal about mortality rates in New England, somewhat less about the Middle Colonies, and least about the South. But apparently mortality was lower from Pennsylvania and New Jersey northward, and higher in the South. Life expectancy at birth ranged from the late twenties to almost forty.

[. . . There was a] sustained decline in white birthrates from at least 1800 and of black fertility from at least 1850. Family sizes were large early in the nineteenth century, being approximately seven children per woman at the beginning of the century and between seven and eight for the largely rural slave population at mid-century. The table also reveals that mortality did not begin to decline until about the 1870s or so. Prior to that, death rates fluctuated, being affected by periodic epidemics and changes in the disease environment. There is some evidence of rising death rates during the 1830s and 1840s. The table also shows that American blacks had both higher fertility and higher mortality relative to the white population, although both groups experienced fertility and mortality transitions. For example, both participated in the rise in birthrates after World War II known as the baby boom, as well as the subsequent resumption of birthrate declines in the 1960s.

Conventional explanations for the fertility transition have involved the rising cost of children because of urbanization, the growth of incomes and nonagricultural employment, the increased value of education, rising female employment, child labor laws and compulsory education, and declining infant and child mortality. Changing attitudes toward large families and contraception, as well as better contraceptive techniques, have also been cited. Recent literature suggests that women were largely responsible for much of the birthrate decline in the nineteenth century -- part of a movement for greater control over their lives. The structural explanations fit the American experience since the late nineteenth century, but they are less appropriate for the fertility decline in rural areas prior to about 1870. The increased scarcity and higher cost of good agricultural land has been proposed as a prime factor, although this is controversial. The standard explanations do not adequately explain the post-World War II baby boom and subsequent baby bust. More complex theories, including the interaction of the size of generations with their income prospects, preferences for children versus material goods, and expectations about family size, have been proposed.

What will be next insofar as women and changing demographics are concerned? An emphasis on expanding the choices available to women is going to be key. Going back to the past isn't an option.

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