An explanation for opposition to female schooling

One thing we see in religiously fundamentalist cultures is an opposition to female schooling. This comes up in the news most often about Moslem fundamentalists, but is part of other fundamentalist traditions as well. The usual explanation for this is the kind of non-explanation about how these people just want to keep women down, women are threatening to their worldview, something like that. Those things might very well be true, but seem inadequate.

A couple of days ago I was listening to Russ Roberts's indispensable Econtalk podcast. It was an interview with Edward Lazear on the works of the economist Gary Becker, who died recently. One topic caught my ear: Becker's work on the opportunity cost of raising a child, where he, controversially, classified a child as "a consumer durable".

Becker was trying to explain why poorer women in the 19th century had fewer children than wealthy women, while, in the 20th and 21st centuries, it was wealthy women who had fewer children. If having a child is a choice (and to some extent it always has been, even before reliable contraception), the relevant resource is the woman's time, since women, even in our theoretically equalitarian age, do the majority of child-rearing.

So Gary reasoned, well, if it's the mother's time that's involved then you have to ask: What is the cost of using the mother's time? And of course in economics one of the most fundamental concepts is opportunity cost. It's the cost of foregoing the next best alternative. And so Gary then reasoned that the opportunity cost of a child was the price of the mother's time; and the price of the mother's time is what she could be doing elsewhere. And that related to her wage rate. All right, so what does that tell you? Well, in the 20th century, what that says is that when women had the option to work, or when most women were working, as they are now, what you'd expect is that women with high wages have very high values of time, and as a result, it's more costly for them to take time off and to have children, and so they tend to have fewer of them.

In the 19th century, it was poorer women whose time value was higher, given how valuable their labor on the farm or in the household was to the success of the family enterprise, so they tended to have fewer children than wealthy women, who, given the constraints they faced, could contribute little to their own families.

That's an interesting observation and explanation of facts otherwise hard to explain, the kind of thing Becker was known for.

My issue here is not that, but to note that if you have a cultural value of having lots of children, and see them as an underlying resource in your struggle against the world, and essential to the success of your enterprise, the last thing you want is educated women, no matter how much value you get out of their additional brainpower. The greater the value of that brainpower, in fact, the less likely they will be to want to give birth to and raise a large number of children.

So, if you accept those premises, refusing to let women get educated only makes sense. Of course, I was kind of deprecating "attitudes" as a way of explaining things, but have really just identified a deeper and less structured attitude than just wanting to subordinate women, so clearly the real explanation is even deeper than this.

In fiction, we don't usually dig underneath for the contingent material circumstances that constrain and condition the cultural attititudes that affect the characters and their personalities and opinions. Except in science fiction, of course, where sometimes that is the point of the story, and one reason the genre still has unexplored potentialities.

Do I have a story in mind to deal with that issue? Not yet.