'Rulers Ruled by Women': An Economic Analysis of the Rise and Fall of Women's Rights in Ancient Sparta

35 Pages Posted: 30 Aug 2005

See all articles by Robert K. Fleck

Robert K. Fleck

Montana State University - Bozeman - Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics

F. Andrew Hanssen

Clemson University - John E. Walker Department of Economics

Date Written: August 22, 2005

Abstract

Throughout most of history, women as a class have possessed relatively few formal rights. The women of ancient Sparta were a striking exception. Although they could not vote, Spartan women reportedly owned 40 percent of Sparta's agricultural land and enjoyed other rights that were equally extraordinary. We offer a simple economic explanation for the Spartan anomaly. The defining moment for Sparta was its conquest of a neighboring land and people, which fundamentally changed the marginal products of Spartan men's and Spartan women's labor. To exploit the potential gains from a reallocation of labor - specifically, to provide the appropriate incentives and the proper human capital formation - men granted women property (and other) rights. Consistent with our explanation for the rise of women's rights, when Sparta lost the conquered land several centuries later, the rights for women disappeared. Two conclusions emerge that may help explain why women's rights have been so rare for most of history. First, in contrast to the rest of the world, the optimal (from the men's perspective) division of labor among Spartans involved women in work that was not easily monitored by men. Second, the rights held by Spartan women may have been part of an unstable equilibrium, which contained the seeds of its own destruction.

Keywords: women's rights, property rights, political economy, ancient Greece

JEL Classification: D23, D70, J16, J20, K11, N33, N43

Suggested Citation

Fleck, Robert K. and Hanssen, F., 'Rulers Ruled by Women': An Economic Analysis of the Rise and Fall of Women's Rights in Ancient Sparta (August 22, 2005). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=788106 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.788106

Robert K. Fleck

Montana State University - Bozeman - Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics ( email )

P.O. Box 172920
Bozeman, MT 59717-2920
United States
406-994-5603 (Phone)
406-994-4838 (Fax)

F. Hanssen (Contact Author)

Clemson University - John E. Walker Department of Economics ( email )

Clemson, SC 29634
United States

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