The Economic Agency of Women in Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population

The Economic Agency of Women in Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population

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The Economic Agency of Women in Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population

It is difficult to examine the question of the division of labor within the household in Malthus’ writings as it seems to be entirely outside the scope of his work. Though his conclusions are predicated on the relationship between men and women, from reading his writing one has the distinct impression that women are not really a factor. In spite of this, an examination of the implications inherent in Malthus’ analysis is revealing of some basic assumptions he makes regarding the economic role of women. With particular regard to the question of agency within the marriage, Malthus’ arguments and conclusions are in opposition to the arguments put forth by Smith in his Lectures on Jurisprudence.

Malthus builds his argument upon two axiomatic statements: “First, that food is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly, that the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state” (Malthus, 1798, Ch 1). Though he does not identify it as such, Malthus makes a third assumption: “Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ration. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio” (Ch 1). What this creates, in his model, is a society that is driven by population pressures to expand and held back by a variety of checks. These checks divide into two basic categories, preventive and active. The active checks are what Malthus terms “vice” and “misery” and are interesting for the purposes of this paper only in that they are unavoidable aspects of every society. The preventive checks, however, are all predicated on members of society delaying marriage. These preventive checks, while they vary in the speci...

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...besides the cost they incur on the men who father their children.

In conclusion, we return to Adam Smith’s model of marriage in his Lectures on Jurisprudence. For him, marriage was predicated on the next generation. It was a tool, not only to provide for the next generation as with Malthus, but for the very existence of children capable of inheriting and continuing the family line. Malthus creates a much more dismal perspective of children, the only product of women, as mere dead weight. In providing the next generation, women merely increase the pressure of population on the food supply, with no consideration on a micro level of the advantages of child bearing.


Malthus, Thomas R (1798). Essay on the Principle of Population [Electronic Version]. Retrieved September 19, 2003, from public/MalPopu.html

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