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Have women been valued less than men in many societies?
By Henry H. Bucher, Jr., Emeritus Faculty in Humanities, Austin College
Apr 1, 2021
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As we leave March (Women’s History Month) behind, and move into April which is registered as representing more than fifty causes, I want to look at a much discussed issue: gender inequalities. This issue is so extensive that I want to narrow it down to some known historical data about the actual values in the ‘marketplace’ between men and women.

How to evaluate human life has always been controversial as we have seen when ‘friendly forces’ were accidentally killed in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and in many other wars. 

The oldest data I could find was in the biblical Leviticus* where the blood price to be paid if a free person was killed was “50 pieces of silver” (shekels)** for a man (20 to 60 years old). For a free woman of the same age span, it was 30 pieces of silver.

The general price of a slave and the blood price for killing your neighbor’s slave was 30 shekels. 

The world knows about the horrors of the Atlantic Slave Trade and of plantation slavery in the Americas.  In my research about Africa, I often found references to the price of slaves in Western Equatorial regions. Usually, in the 1700s, slave prices were described as “Indian Pieces”—a length of cotton cloth made in India. There was also a price in ‘Bundles’, which included knives, guns, vases, cloth, bottles of rum, and much more.

Around 1700, south of the equator, a man was worth 8 ‘pieces’, and a woman 7. By the 1870s in Gabon, a man cost 100 francs and a woman, 150—both could be paid in salt. That women had more value after the slave trade was made illegal by the British Parliament (1807/1808), was probably due to plantation slavery being more dependent on family expansion.

Finding slave data in the USA is easier, but evaluating it is harder since different states had different prices and some were on the gold standard. What is of more interest, going outside of slavery, in 1984/85, the average woman in the USA earned 60 cents on a man’s a dollar—the same ratio as slave values in Leviticus! By 1988, it was 65 to 70 cents for women on a man’s dollar. The most recent U.S. Labor Department data I have seen say the ratio average has grown to 82 cents per an man’s dollar.

It is important to compare the ratios in monetary data in the historical context, since monetary values have increased significantly. It looks like ‘values’ are getting closer with regard to gender equality, but progress is slow. It does seem that it was very slow in the past 300 years, but the curve of average equality in earnings has a higher upper slope in the last 30 years.

 

*Chapter 27:1-8.

** A shekel dates to the Phoenicians, and before—a weight, usually in silver. Israel’s newest shekel is .4 ounces of silver.