The BI Business History Seminar

Missing girls in historical Europe?

Missing girls in historical Europe?

Francisco Beltrán Tapia (NTNU)

It has been 30 years since Amartya Sen forcibly drew the world’s attention towards the phenomenon of missing girls in the developing world, especially in South and East Asia. Unbalanced sex ratios pointed to gender discrimination in the form of sex-selective abortion, female infanticide and/or the mortal neglect of young girls. Son preference stemmed from economic and cultural factors that have long influenced the perceived relative value of women in those regions and resulted in millions of “missing girls”, an issue that has received considerable attention from both the media and academia.

Despite the dramatic magnitude of this phenomenon, the historical experience of European countries has received little attention. Although the conventional narrative argues that there is little evidence of gender discrimination resulting in excess female mortality in infancy and childhood, preliminary evidence suggests that this issue might have been more important than previously thought, especially (but not exclusively) in Southern and Eastern Europe. This research project, funded by the Research Council of Norway, thus studies whether discriminatory practices unduly increased female mortality during infancy and childhood in historical Europe (c.1700-1950). More specifically, the project seeks to (1) trace the importance of missing girls, and thus the extent of discriminatory practices; (2) identify the type of families that were more likely to be involved in this kind of behaviour; and (3) highlight the factors that explain the variation in discriminatory practices across regions and over time.

Apart from briefly presenting the overall project, the talk will focus on a case-study that relies on longitudinal micro data from a Spanish rural region between 1750 and 1950 (almost 90,000 individuals). The analysis will explore how discrimination may have affected sex-specific mortality rates (1) around birth and (2) during infancy and childhood. On the one hand, baptism records exhibit exceptionally high sex ratios at birth, especially during the 19th century. This data also shows that having no previous male siblings increased both the probability of male baptisms and female mortality during the first day of life. These findings seem to be concentrated at higher parities and among landless and semi-landless families which were subject to harsher economic conditions and therefore more likely to resort to extreme decisions under difficult circumstances. On the other hand, although it is likely that families also discriminated girls during the first year of life, the female excess mortality was especially visible in the 1-5 age-group. In this regard, while breastfeeding seemed to have temporarily mitigated the effects of gender discrimination, sex-specific mortality rates behaved markedly different once children were weaned. Parents therefore seem to have prioritised boys during infancy and childhood in the allocation of food and/or care in order to enhance their survival chances.

Practical information

  • Time:Thursday, 22 April 2021 11:30 - 13:00
  • Place:Digital on Zoom
  • Price:Free
  • Contact:Espen Ekberg (