New research shows that women landowners were vital to the economy and society of 19th century Bangkok—in many cases cultivating their land more effectively than men. Historical court records also show how women in Siam defended their land rights in court, fighting and winning cases to secure their property.
A new study by researchers at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University tells a unique story of how Thai women have historically defended their rights to land and property and, in at least one case, were more productive agricultural land owners than men.
Looking at records of land titles, taxes and court cases from the late 1800s, the researchers found that Thai women not only held agricultural land, but were also able to win cases protecting their land in court.
The study, to be published soon in Economic History Review, goes against the historical narrative that women in Southeast Asia were unable to defend their rights to their livelihoods and property.
“We often have historical narratives—frequently framed through a colonial lens—that are accepted without question,” said study author Jessica Vechbanyongratana, assistant professor of Economics at Chulalongkorn. “There is a pervasive narrative that traditional land rights in Siam were insecure and were not respected by official authorities during the 19th century.”
Women in 19th-century Bangkok held land and supported a high standard of living
The study’s authors looked at over 9,000 land titles from fruit orchards in Bangkok in the 1880s and found that 82% of the properties listed at least one woman as a landowner. Of these, 26% were held exclusively by women, compared to 18% held only by men.
But as land titles on paper often don’t translate into reality, the study also looked at land use. The researchers used tax data to analyze how productive each orchard was, as Bangkok authorities taxed properties based on the number of fruit trees in each orchard.
Plots owned by women were 6.7% more productive, on average, than plots owned by men and women together. The women-owned orchards had more fruit trees per hectare and could support larger households. Compared to orchards with only male owners, women-owned orchards were 13.4% more productive.
According to the researchers, this shows that women invested more heavily in cash crop cultivation than men. This suggests that women in 19th century Bangkok perceived their land rights as secure, and it also aligns with another recent study on land tenure security and smallholder agricultural investment in Vietnam.
The Chulalongkorn researchers also found women-owned agricultural land was linked to increased welfare, meaning these households had more than enough to eat. Orchards were a key part of the Bangkok economy at the time—the earliest land use map of the city, from 1887, shows the urban land outside the palace area was used to grow fruits like mangoes and durian. Rice paddies typically sat further from the urban center.
The authors suggest that women’s relatively strong land rights in Bangkok allowed the city to enjoy a standard of living in the 1800s that was comparable to cities like Beijing or Milan. In the late 19th century, higher wages in Bangkok drew waves of Chinese laborers. In 1889, the daily wage for a manual laborer in Bangkok was 0.75 baht.
Court records show how women defended their land in the justice system
The study then looked at how women defended their land rights through the legal system, by reviewing over 200 land-related court cases. Siam maintained its traditional land rights system until it adopted a Western-style land code in 1901. In the final years of the old system, the Ministry of Urban Affairs began adopting reforms and the number of land rights court cases spiked, producing more records and offering insight into how women’s land rights played out in court.
The researchers found that women in Bangkok in the late 1800s were able to defend their land rights in court, as both plaintiffs and defendants, regardless of class. In some cases, women from lower classes won court cases against men with significant political power. As in Thailand today, agricultural and urban land was in high demand, with powerful investors and political elites often determining who gets to keep their land and under what terms.
“The land rights movement across the world also moves towards gender equality, which means that such a global movement and traditional practice in Thailand and Southeast Asia are likely to reinforce each other,” said study author Thanyaporn Chankrajang, assistant professor of economics at Chulalongkorn.
The study supports a larger narrative of how women in Southeast Asia were relatively autonomous in their marriages and families and enjoyed influential roles in diplomacy, politics and economic activities. In 19th-century Siam, entirely female households were common, in part because men in the lower classes were often called into service by the government, military or monarchy for six months out of the year.
As a French diplomat to Siam wrote of men when they returned home from service, “He works not at all, when he works not for his King. He walks not abroad, he hunts not, he does nothing almost but continue sitting or lying, eating, playing, smoking and sleeping.” In many cases, divorce didn’t historically lead to a decrease in women’s social status or power.
The findings also fit with the trend among Southeast Asian societies towards matrilineage—the tracing of family lines and the passage of property or titles through women. Historians have documented matrilineage across Thai, northern Lao and Shan ethnic societies.
“The findings may seem in contrast to female experiences in historical Western countries or even some today’s developing countries. However, they reflect common understandings in the literature about notable economic roles of Southeast Asian women,” said Thanyaporn.