Missing girls in 19th-century Spain

by Francisco J. Beltrán Tapia (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

This article is published by the Economic History Review, and it is available here

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 and Africa. Son preference stemmed from economic and cultural factors that have long influenced the perceived relative value of women in these regions and resulted in millions of “missing girls”. But, were there “missing girls” in historical Europe? The conventional narrative argues that there is little evidence for this kind of gender discrimination. According to this view, the European household formation system, together with prevailing ethical and religious values, limited female infanticide and the mortal neglect of young girls.

However, several studies suggest that parents treated their sons and daughters differently in 19th-century Britain and continental Europe (see, for instance, here, here or here). These authors stress that an unequal allocation of food, care and/or workload negatively affected girls’ nutritional status and morbidity, which translated in worsened heights and mortality rates. In order to provide more systematic historical evidence of this type of behaviour, our research (with Domingo Gallego-Martínez) relies on sex ratios at birth and at older ages. In the absence of gender discrimination, the number of boys per hundred girls in different age groups is remarkably regular, so comparing the observed figure 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. However, although non-discriminatory sex ratios at birth revolve around 105-106 boys per hundred girls in most developed countries today, historical sex ratios cannot be compared directly to modern ones.

We have shown here that non-discriminatory infant and child sex ratios were much lower in the past. The biological survival advantage of girls was more visible in the high-mortality environments that characterised pre-industrial Europe due to poor living conditions, lack of hygiene and the absence of public health systems. Subsequently, boys suffered relatively higher mortality rates both in utero and during infancy and childhood. Historical infant and child sex ratios were therefore relatively low, even in the presence of gender-discriminatory practices. This is illustrated in Figure 1 below which plots the relationship between child sex ratios and infant mortality rates using information from seventeen European countries between 1750 and 2001. In particular, in societies where infant mortality rates were around 250 deaths (per 1,000 live births), a gender-neutral child sex ratio should have been slightly below parity (around 99.5 boys per hundred girls).

pic 01
Figure 1. Infant mortality rates and child sex ratios in Europe, 1750-2001


Compared to this benchmark, infant and child sex ratios in 19th-century Spain were abnormally high (see black dots in Figure 1 above; the number refers to the year of the observation), thus suggesting that some sort of gender discrimination was unduly increasing female mortality rates at those ages. This pattern, which is not the result of under-enumeration of girls in the censuses, mostly disappeared at the turn of the 20th century. Notwithstanding that average sex ratios remained relatively high in nineteenth- century Spain, some regions exhibited even more extreme figures. In 1860, 54 districts (out of 471) had infant sex ratios above 115, figures that are extremely unlikely to have occurred by chance. Relying on an extremely rich dataset at the district level, our research analyses regional variation in order to examine what lies behind the unbalanced sex ratios. Our results show that the presence of wage labour opportunities for women and the prevalence of extended families in which different generations of women cohabited had beneficial effects on girls’ survival. Likewise, infant and child sex ratios were lower in dense, more urbanized areas.

This evidence thus suggests that discriminatory practices with lethal consequences for girls constituted a veiled feature of pre-industrial Spain. Excess female mortality was then not necessarily the result of ill-treatment of young girls but could have been just based on an unequal allocation of resources within the household, a circumstance that probably cumulated as infants grew older. In contexts where infant and child mortality is high, a slight discrimination in the way that young girls were fed or treated when ill, as well as in the amount of work which they were entrusted with, was likely to have resulted in more girls dying from the combined effect of undernutrition and illness. Although female infanticide or other extreme versions of mistreatment of young girls may not have been a systematic feature of historical Europe, this line of research would point to more passive, but pervasive, forms of gender discrimination that also resulted in a significant fraction of missing girls.

To contact the author:


Twitter: @FJBeltranTapia

Revisiting the changing body

by Bernard Harris (University of Strathclyde)

The Society has arranged with CUP that a 20% discount is available on this book, valid until the 11th November 2018. The discount page is: www.cambridge.org/wm-ecommerce-web/academic/landingPage/EHS20

The last century has witnessed unprecedented improvements in survivorship and life expectancy. In the United Kingdom alone, infant mortality fell from over 150 deaths per thousand births at the start of the last century to 3.9 deaths per thousand births in 2014 (see the Office for National Statistics  for further details). Average life expectancy at birth increased from 46.3 to 81.4 years over the same period (see the Human Mortality Database). These changes reflect fundamental improvements in diet and nutrition and environmental conditions.

The changing body: health, nutrition and human development in the western world since 1700 attempted to understand some of the underlying causes of these changes. It drew on a wide range of archival and other sources covering not only mortality but also height, weight and morbidity. One of our central themes was the extent to which long-term improvements in adult health reflected the beneficial effect of improvements in earlier life.

The changing body also outlined a very broad schema of ‘technophysio evolution’ to capture the intergenerational effects of investments in early life. This is represented in a very simple way in Figure 1. The Figure tries to show how improvements in the nutritional status of one generation increase its capacity to invest in the health and nutritional status of the next generation, and so on ‘ad infinitum’ (Floud et al. 2011: 4).

Figure 1. Technophysio evolution: a schema. Source: See Floud et al. 2011: 3-4.

We also looked at some of the underlying reasons for these changes, including the role of diet and ‘nutrition’. As part of this process, we included new estimates of the number of calories which could be derived from the amount of food available for human consumption in the United Kingdom between circa 1700 and 1913. However, our estimates contrasted sharply with others published at the same time (Muldrew 2011) and were challenged by a number of other authors subsequently. Broadberry et al. (2015) thought that our original estimates were too high, whereas both Kelly and Ó Gráda (2013) and Meredith and Oxley (2014) regarded them as too low.

Given the importance of these issues, we revisited our original calculations in 2015. We corrected an error in the original figures, used Overton and Campbell’s (1996) data on extraction rates to recalculate the number of calories, and included new information on the importation of food from Ireland to other parts of what became the UK. Our revised Estimate A suggested that the number of calories rose by just under 115 calories per head per day between 1700 and 1750 and by more than 230 calories between 1750 and 1800, with little changes between 1800 and 1850. Our revised Estimate B suggested that there was a much bigger increase during the first half of the eighteenth century, followed by a small decline between 1750 and 1800 and a bigger increase between 1800 and 1850 (see Figure 2). However, both sets of figures were still well below the estimates prepared by Kelly and Ó Gráda, Meredith and Oxley, and Muldrew for the years before 1800.

Source: Harris et al. 2015: 160.

These calculations have important implications for a number of recent debates in British economic and social history (Allen 2005, 2009). Our data do not necessarily resolve the debate over whether Britons were better fed than people in other countries, although they do compare quite favourably with relevant French estimates (see Floud et al. 2011: 55). However, they do suggest that a significant proportion of the eighteenth-century population was likely to have been underfed.
Our data also raise some important questions about the relationship between nutrition and mortality. Our revised Estimate A suggests that food availability rose slowly between 1700 and 1750 and then more rapidly between 1750 and 1800, before levelling off between 1800 and 1850. These figures are still broadly consistent with Wrigley et al.’s (1997) estimates of the main trends in life expectancy and our own figures for average stature. However, it is not enough simply to focus on averages; we also need to take account of possible changes in the distribution of foodstuffs within households and the population more generally (Harris 2015). Moreover, it is probably a mistake to examine the impact of diet and nutrition independently of other factors.

To contact the author: bernard.harris@strath.ac.uk


Allen, R. (2005), ‘English and Welsh agriculture, 1300-1850: outputs, inputs and income’. URL: https://www.nuffield.ox.ac.uk/media/2161/allen-eandw.pdf.

Allen, R. (2009), The British industrial revolution in global perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Broadberry, S., Campbell, B., Klein, A., Overton, M. and Van Leeuwen, B. (2015), British economic growth, 1270-1870, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Floud, R., Fogel, R., Harris, B. and Hong, S.C. (2011), The changing body: health, nutrition and human development in the western world since 1700, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harris, B. (2015), ‘Food supply, health and economic development in England and Wales during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’, Scientia Danica, Series H, Humanistica, 4 (7), 139-52.

Harris, B., Floud, R. and Hong, S.C. (2015), ‘How many calories? Food availability in England and Wales in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’, Research in Economic History, 31, 111-91.

Kelly, M. and Ó Gráda, C. (2013), ‘Numerare est errare: agricultural output and food supply in England before and during the industrial revolution’, Journal of Economic History, 73 (4), 1132-63.

Meredith, D. and Oxley, D. (2014), ‘Food and fodder: feeding England, 1700-1900’, Past and Present, 222, 163-214.

Muldrew, C. (2011), Food, energy and the creation of industriousness: work and material culture in agrarian England, 1550-1780, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Overton, M. and Campbell, B. (1996), ‘Production et productivité dans l’agriculture anglaise, 1086-1871’, Histoire et Mésure, 1 (3-4), 255-97.

Wrigley, E.A., Davies, R., Oeppen, J. and Schofield, R. (1997), English population history from family reconstitution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.