Norms Formation: The Gold Rush and Women's Roles

How does the scarcity of women affect gender norms? We explore the Gold Rush in Western United States in the late 19th century as a natural experiment to answer this question. We use a geographic difference-in-difference methodology, exploiting the location and discovery of the gold deposits and its influence on sex ratios, to understand short term and medium term changes in women’s labor market participation and marriage market opportunities. Gold mining, likely through the oversupply of marriageable men with income, increased marriage rates among women. Women also married older men with higher prestige occupations. Men were less likely to marry. In parallel with the changes to marriage markets, the Gold Rush created a market based service sector economy, potentially catering to men with money but poor marriage prospects. We find support for the hypothesis that these effects persist in the medium term using the 1940 census, also when controlling for contemporaneous sex ratio and presence of mining.

Written with Sandra Aguilar-Gomez (School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University)