It is often assumed that improvements in household wealth are associated with greater gender equality, including greater women’s autonomy and decision-making power inside the home. Yet, evidence often shows the opposite: greater household wealth often curtails women’s autonomy. Research has yet to reveal the driving forces behind this surprising finding. This paper focuses on one important social force, the community gender system, to show how it shapes the relationship between changing household wealth and women’s autonomy. Drawing on a nationally representative panel of rural women in India and fixed effects models, I find that the prevalence of women’s veiling at the village level, a notable marker of an exclusionary gender system, moderates the effects of increasing household wealth on women’s autonomy. In villages with less veiling, increases in wealth have the perverse effect of suppressing women’s autonomy. The study suggests that in these places, households curtail women’s mobility because such behavior signals rising social status. In contrast, in villages with more veiling increasing household wealth does not reduce women’s autonomy because most households across the class spectrum are already conforming to the norms of seclusion. The findings demonstrate how new wealth interacts with a community gender system which is anchored in gendered notions of family honor to reproduce structures of gender inequality.

You do not currently have access to this content.