Sex ratios and missing girls in historical Europe

Francisco J. Beltrán Tapia. Show Author details

Sex ratios missing girls Europe
A Russian family in the late 19th century

Gender discrimination, in the form of sex-selective abortion, female infanticide and the mortal neglect of young girls, constitutes a pervasive feature of many contemporary developing countries, especially in South and East Asia. Son preference stemmed from economic and cultural factors that have long influenced the perceived value of women in these regions and resulted in millions of “missing girls”. But, were there “missing girls” in historical Europe? Although the conventional narrative argues that there is little evidence for this kind of behaviour (here), this post argues that this issue was much more important than previously thought, especially in Southern and Eastern Europe. 

Studying sex ratios obtained from historical censuses allows shedding light into these issues. In the absence of gender discrimination, the relative number male and female children is remarkably regular. Comparing, therefore, the observed value to the expected (gender-neutral) sex ratio permits assessing the cumulative impact of gender bias in peri-natal, infant and child mortality and, consequently, the importance of potential discriminatory practices. Historical sex ratios cannot, however, be compared directly to modern ones because the biological survival advantage of girls was more visible in the high-mortality environments that characterised pre-industrial Europe. Subsequently, boys “naturally” suffered higher mortality rates both in utero and during infancy and early childhood, which led to lower child sex ratios, even in the presence of gender-discriminatory practices. 

This is illustrated in the figure below which plots the evolution of child sex ratios (aged 0-4) in Europe between 1750 and 2001 (left) and the underlying link between these figures and infant mortality rates (right). In particular, infant mortality rates around 250 deaths (per 1,000 live births) were compatible with child sex ratio around parity (100 boys per hundred girls). Compared to this benchmark, child sex ratios were abnormally high in some regions, especially in Southern and Eastern Europe (darker dots in the right-hand figure), at least until the early 20th century. This pattern suggests that some sort of gender discrimination was unduly increasing female mortality rates at those ages. 

Sex ratios Europe 1750-2001
Sex ratios and IMR Europe 1750-2001

A similar picture is found looking at children aged 5-9, which mitigates the possibility that female under-registration explains these patterns. Interestingly, the evolution of sex ratios by age also shows stark disparities across countries. In Bulgaria, Greece or France, for instance, sex ratios increased from age 2 onwards, thus suggesting that gender discrimination continued increasing female mortality rates as girls grew older (see Fig. 5 here). Importantly, the unbalanced sex ratios observed in some regions are not due to random noise, female under-registration or sex-specific migratory flows (see also here).

Looking at sex-specific mortality rates also suggests that girls suffered discriminatory practices that unduly reduced their survival chances. The Italian case, where the necessary information is available yearly from the mid-19th century onwards, serves to illustrate this point. Using the Human Mortality Database, the next figure plots the evolution of male excess mortality during infancy (aged 0-1) and early childhood (aged 1-4) in Europe between 1850 and 2015 (the black dots distinguish the Italian values from those of other countries). As previously discussed, the female biological advantage is especially visible during the second half of the 19th century when, on average, around 24 more boys than girls were dying during the first year of life (per 1,000 live births; male excess mortality is smaller during early childhood). These gender gaps declined as time went by and overall mortality levels were also reduced. Excess male mortality, however, was significantly lower in Italy up to the 1920s: more girls (or less boys) were dying during this period, a pattern that it is especially visible during early childhood. From then onwards, the Italian experience converged with that of their European counterparts.

Excess male mortality Europe 01 since 1850
Excess male mortality Europe 14 since 1850

What explains son preference?

The evidence provided so far is also supported by detailed case studies. A strong son preference clearly increased female mortality rates around birth and throughout infancy and childhood in Modern Greece, at least until the 1920s (here). Our estimations imply that more than 5 per cent of girls went “missing” between 1861 and 1920. This view is further supported by a large body of qualitative evidence (contemporary accounts, folklore traditions, and anthropological studies) that stresses that girls were neglected due to their inferior status in society. The Greek case indeed mirrors some of the characteristics that have been associated with female neglect in South and East Asia, namely a strong patriarchal system based on strict (patri-lineal) kinship and dowry systems. Likewise, the lack of potential male partners due to mass migration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries further worsened women’s position in the marriage market. Lastly, female status was also probably impaired by the fear of conflict (and of blood feuds) that accompanied the birth of Modern Greece, a feature that was reinforced by the concept of honour that was characteristic of Greek and other Mediterranean cultures.      

Although less extreme, these practices are also evident in 19th century Spain (here and here). Rich parish registers indeed provide a finer-grain picture and confirm not only that some families neglected their female infants (here) but also that gender-discriminatory practices continued during infancy and childhood (here). This behavior was, however, less visible during the first year of life because, once infants were accepted into the family, breastfeeding protected boys and girls alike. Sex differences in mortality rates, nonetheless, clearly resurfaced when children were weaned. Discriminatory practices during childhood seem to have been part of a generalized cultural system that privileged boys in terms of access to food and/or care but these findings seem to be concentrated at higher parities and among landless and semi-landless families which were subject to harsher economic conditions. The intensity of patriarchal values can indeed go a long way in explaining regional differences. Information on more than 300 populations in historical Europe taken from the Mosaic project actually evidences that the patriarchy index (measuring the intensity of sex- and age-related social inequalities) is positively associated with child sex ratios (see figure below). Disaggregating the index into its different components is also illuminating because it shows that child sex ratios tended to be higher in locations exhibiting patrilocal norms and a low female age at marriage.

Patriarchy and child sex ratios Europe

Towards a better understanding of the demographic transition

The evidence presented in this post thus indicates that discriminatory practices with lethal consequences for girls constituted a veiled feature of our European past. However, the actual nature of discrimination remains unclear and surely varied by region. Although female infanticide and the abandonment of girls played a role in some areas, excess female mortality also resulted from an unequal allocation of resources within the household. In contexts where infant and child mortality was high, a slight discrimination in the way that young girls were fed or treated when ill surely resulted in more girls dying from the combined effect of undernutrition and illness. Rather than outright neglect, this mechanism would point to more passive, but pervasive, forms of gender discrimination. 

These discriminatory patterns affecting female mortality early in life disappeared during the first decades of the 20th century, as soon as the demographic transition and other economic, social and cultural changes improved living standards, reduced general mortality rates and undermined son preference due to the expanding female labour opportunities brought about by urbanisation and industrialisation (see here, here or here). These findings therefore not only challenge the notion that there were no missing girls in historical Europe, but also have important implications for our understanding of the traditional demographic regime and the subsequent transition to lower fertility and mortality rates, especially in Southern and Eastern Europe. In this regard, the female advantage was less visible in the 19th century because it was partly constrained by existing discriminatory practices in infancy and childhood. The gradual disappearance of these practices would therefore contribute to explaining the improvement in girls’ health that took place during the demographic transition. 

Further information:

  • This article is based on various pieces of work by the author, such as Beltrán-Tapia et al. (2019). Sex ratios and missing girls in late-19th-century Europe, EHES Working Paper No. 160 (link).
  • The source of the associated image of this post is a book published by Francis B. Reeves in 1917, and was taken from Wikimedia Commons (link)

Author details

Associate Professor (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)
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