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Cultural Practices and Women's Lives

Paper Session

Friday, Jan. 4, 2019 2:30 PM - 4:30 PM

Atlanta Marriott Marquis, A708
Hosted By: American Economic Association & Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession
  • Chair: Nancy Qian, Northwestern University

Marital Norms and Women's Education

Mayuri Chaturvedi
Columbia University


In this paper, I explore the effect of the cultural norm of ‘marrying-up’ on women’s education in the United States. I use US Census and ACS data from 1940-2010, and utilize the 1965 U.S. Immigration Act as a source of exogenous variation in the pool of skills among potential partners in the economy. I assume that foreign-born women in the United States had access to their home country marriage markets both before and after the Act. Hence, only U.S. born women would be affected by the influx of high- skilled individuals from the policy change in choosing their pre-marital investments in education. I find that graduation rates among US-born women increase relative to foreign-born women residing in the U.S. in response to the increase in the graduation rates among men due to the Immigration Act. I develop a model of pre-marital investments in education to explain the above results. Agents derive utility from labor market returns and marriage market returns to education. Due to society’s preference that women marry up, the model proposes that women experience lower utility from getting ‘too much’ education because of a lower probability of finding a preferred partner. When there are more high-education men around, women respond by increasing their education because of a loosening of their constraint. The model also predicts that high-skill women will be less affected by the change in men’s education than low-skill women.

Does Maternal Education Decrease Female Genital Cutting?

Giulia La Mattina
University of South Florida
Elisabetta De Cao
London School of Economics


Female genital cutting (FGC) is a human violation of women's physical integrity and a harmful custom with potentially negative long-term health consequences. More than 200 million girls and women are affected by FGC worldwide. Education is often depicted as an effective instrument for abandoning the practice, but strikingly, causal evidence is scant. In this paper we study the causal effect of maternal education on the probability that daughters undergo FGC. We focus on Nigeria, a country where 20 million girls and women are estimated to be circumcised, representing 10% of the global total. To establish causation, we consider the introduction of the 1976 Universal Primary Education (UPE) program as a natural experiment. Using data from the 1999 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey, we document a small negative association between mothers' education and the probability that their daughters undergo FGC. We confirm that the education reform significantly increases years of education for women in the exposed cohorts, but we find no significant impact of the reform on the probability that their daughters are cut. As a potential mechanism for the absence of a significant causal effect, we examine whether UPE affects women's attitudes towards FGC. If education does not reduce a mother's support for FGC, it might as well not change her decision to have her daughter cut. Indeed we find no evidence that mothers' education reduces their support for FGC.

Immigration Enforcement, Police Trust and Domestic Violence

Catalina Amuedo-Dorantes
San Diego State University
Esther Arenas-Arroyo
University of Oxford


Domestic violence is a serious under-reported crime in the United States, especially among undocumented women given their reluctance to seek assistance for fear of deportation. While the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) allows battered immigrants to petition for legal status without relying on abusive U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident spouses, we find that intensified interior immigration enforcement has curbed the VAWA self-petition rate. In contrast, sanctuary policies limiting the cooperation of law enforcement with Immigration Customs Enforcement partially counteract that impact. Understanding survivors’ responses to immigration policy is crucial given growing police mistrust and vulnerability to crime among immigrants.

The Economic Motives for Foot-Binding

Lingwei Wu
University of Bonn
Xinyu Fan
University of California-Los Angeles


What are the origins of gender-biased social norms? As a painful custom that persisted in historical China, foot-binding targeted girls whose feet were reshaped during early childhood. This paper presents a unified theory to explain the stylized facts of foot-binding, and investigates its historical dynamics driven by a gender-asymmetric mobility system in historical China (the Civil Examination System). The exam system marked the transition from hereditary aristocracy to meritocracy, generated a more heterogeneous composition of men compared to that of women, and triggered intensive competition among women in the marriage market. As a competition package carrying both aesthetic and moral values, foot-binding was gradually adopted by women as their social ladder, first in the upper class and later by the lower class. Since foot-binding impedes non-sedentary labor, but not sedentary labor, however, its adoption in the lower class exhibited distinctive regional variation: it was highly prevalent in regions where women specialized in household handicraft, and was less popular in regions where women specialized in intensive farming, e.g. rice cultivation. Empirically, we conduct analysis using county-level Republican archives on foot-binding to test the cross-sectional predictions of our theory, and major findings that are robust and consistent with key theoretical predictions.
Marianne Bertrand
University of Chicago
Rebecca Thornton
University of Illinois
Delia Furtado
University of Connecticut
Aloysius Siow
University of Toronto
JEL Classifications
  • J1 - Demographic Economics
  • J7 - Labor Discrimination