Women inventors: an exploration of French patents 1791-1900

Lilla salen Session 5: Leading Change: Female Pioneers in Patenting and Inventing organized by Youssouf Merouani


Youssouf Merouani, Faustine Perrin


The expanding research on the evolution of women’s position in society has contributed to dispel persistent myths about how much they contributed to the economic prosperity of developed and developing economies. Scholars have addressed the role of gender and women’s economic activities on economic development (e.g. Boserup, 1970; Goldin, 1990), showing the importance of human capital as key component for the development process (e.g. Diebolt and Perrin, 2013; Baten and de Pleijt, 2021). Although a rich literature has documented the importance of technical and scientific knowledge in the emergence and adoption of innovative industrial technology fostering the industrialization process (Mokyr, 2010; Squicciarini, and Voigtländer, 2015; Cinnirella and Streb, 2017; Mokyr, Sarid, van der Beek, 2019; among others), we lack knowledge on how much women may have contributed to the process. Using a sample drawn from patent and exhibition records for France during the first half of the nineteenth century, Khan (2016) recently showed that entrepreneurship and innovation was not only done by the elites in society but also by middle-class women. During this era women were unable to acquire formal schooling, and it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that changes in French legislation permitted the establishment of a wider state educational system open to both sexes (Perrin, 2013). Furthermore, while the legal status of women in France was more equal than most other countries in Europe, married women still faced more restrictions than widowed or unmarried women (Lewis, 1980). In this paper, we investigate the evolution of women patenting over time and across space. More specifically, we question the extent to which women participated to the innovation process during the crucial phase of industrialization in France. To this end, we build an original dataset covering patents granted to French women between 1791 and 1899. Despite the absence of scientific and technical education for women, women took an active part in the innovation process. Paradoxically, despite the legal restrictions established by the Civil Code, we find that married women occur more frequently in patent data than widows and unmarried women. The structural changes in human capital investment occurring in the second half of the nineteenth century may have contributed to foster the ability for women to innovate and invent. Substantial regional variation can also be observed across the French territory. The purpose of this study is not only to shed quantitative light on women’s patenting during the whole nineteenth century in France, but also to explore differences in women’s and men’s patenting behavior on a micro-spatial level during the industrialization process. This paper has significance for our understanding of women lives in the past but it has also wider implications, notably to enhance our understanding of the mechanisms behind the development process via the exploration of the links between upper-tail human capital and economic growth.


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