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  • Men and Women Out of Balance September 17, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Modern , trackback

    A bit of a cookie-dough post today as Beachcombing tries to make sense of something that has being going around and around in his head. Last week, during the infamous hacker attack of Sept 2011, Beach noted the extraordinary gender imbalance in modern China where perhaps – the numbers are much contested – 119 boys are born for every 100 girls. This got him thinking about gender balance in history generally and extreme cases where men have outnumbered women or women have outnumbered men. What follows is just a splurge of thoughts. Beach is sure there are better examples hiding out there like earwigs under stones: he just doesn’t know them: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    First consideration: societies where women outnumber men will be far more common than the contrary. After all, two great population changers – war and immigration – disproportionately affect men.

    With immigration there are some striking cases: enjoy, for instance, the following article about a male shortage in modern immigrant-mad Australia. But war tends to have more permanent and painful consequences. Beach grew up in a country – the UK – that was still feeling the traumas of the lost generation after the First World War, when there had been too few men to go around. Three quarters of a million males had been removed, ‘just like that’, from reproduction duties by German gas, German bullets and German shells. Worse still these men were taken disproportionately from certain classes – particularly the upper middle classes, and from the 18-35 age group. Britain got off lightly in the Second World War, but other countries, France and Germany among them, were hit with a second whammy of another hemorrhaging of young men. It is little consolation that, thanks to the SS and mass bombing, the deaths were, to some extent, balanced out by the deaths of young women too.

    Societies where men predominate are rarer. There are freakish cases like the Vatican, but is that even really a society? Sorry, Benedict. More interesting are colonial situations where first generation immigrants are more likely to be male and good at handling a flintlock. In the early modern Caribbean, for example, there were many more men than women: ‘In 1661 the ratio of white men to white woman on Jamaica was approximately six to one’ (94). It is interesting looking at marriages in the West Indies that rich plantation owners invariably had wives, middle-ranking farmers sometimes did and those below them rarely did. It would be interesting to compare this with population numbers among immigrants in the modern Gulf, possibly the strangest immigrant societies in the contemporary world and a place where you would be certainly advised not to go topless on the beach.

    But then there are also modern instances where there is selective female migration, leading to curious situations at home. Quoting a contrary example from the article linked above, and with apologies for bringing Australia up again: ‘In the town of Glenden in the northern state of Queensland there is one single female for every 23 men’. Women gravitate towards cities for jobs and men stay behind to work the farms and ranches.

    Second consideration: what are the effects of a gender imbalance? The first effect would presumably be sexual. Societies with a large imbalance and not enough partners to go around would perhaps be more open to bisexual and homosexual behaviour. This, anyway, is the thesis of Burg in Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition, a book that is well worth the read. Beach has also come across claims, of which he is more suspicious, in works from thirty and forty years ago, that societies where women predominate produce, strangely, more male homosexuals because there is not the ‘steadying’ influence of the male sex. The cases that Beach read about referred to situations where fathers had been killed in war and mothers and aunts were bringing up sons. This, need it be said, goes against all modern thinking, but seems worth quoting as a minority opinion. Beach is also curious about Fundamentalist Mormon Compounds in the US.

    Other effects: Beach suggested in his hacking post that male dominated societies would be far more dangerous and ready to go to war than female-dominated societies. An excess of estrogen can be a bit tiresome sometimes: Beach teaches in a wimpish branch of the humanities where sixteen girls and one boy is a typical class. But it is far, far preferable surely to an excess of testosterone. Are male dominated colonial societies really more violent than balanced societies though? Beach would guess so but he does not have the proof and does not feel like running through two hundred years of, say, Bermudan court cases to find out.

    PS Two other thoughts that Beach has been unable to integrate here because he lacks the knowledge, but that might be worth the trouble. Is there any contagious, fatal illness that disproportionately affects one sex or another to the extent that it could throw society off balance? Second, gender imbalance in modern China comes down to the selective use of abortion in a state where families are only allowed one child. Are there examples from traditional or tribal societies where girl children are left out on the dung heap far, far more often than male children: again in such a way to change population balance?


    18 Sept 2011:  As Beach stated this was a rather experimental post but he also had this strong sense that he was missing something important. Judith from Zenobia to the rescue with the ‘bleeding obvious’, that escaped Beachcombing, childbirth: ‘War is indeed a great killer of men but, until quite modern times, it was nicely balanced by the deaths of young women in childbirth. Even in 17th century Friesland, already quite prosperous and clean, one in seven mothers died soon before, during, or soon after childbirth. We have a midwife’s diary that is precisely detailed.You ask: Are there examples from traditional or tribal societies where girl children are left out on the dung heap far, far more often than male children: again in such a way to change population balance? Certainly in the ancient Graeco-Roman world, as I’m sure you know: “Everyone, even a poor man, raises a son; everyone, even a rich man, exposes a daughter” (Posidippus, Hermaphroditus, frag 11; but, as a comic poet, was he only kidding?). It must have changed the sex balance to some extent but I’ve never come across any figures.’ As to the dungheap Beach is reminded of a very sad papyrus letter, a soldier writing to his wife telling her to get ready to put the baby in her womb out if a daughter. Thanks Judith!!!! More to come on this. Here was just an urgent mail by way of correction.

    19 Sept 2011: KMH writes in: ‘For the prophetically minded, Isaiah 4.1 could be of interest ‘And in that day seven women shall take hold of one man saying, We will eat our own bread, and wear our own apparel; only let us be called by thy name, to take away our reproach’. Even though the normal birth ratio of male to female has been about 1.05 to 1, women today in industrial societies somewhat outnumber men in total since they tend to live longer. This is in contrast to less developed societies and past centuries generally where the opposite prevailed. Are we to believe that as the male succeeds in subduing the earth he will ultimately lose much of his function?  Perhaps. In a perfect environment what would males be needed for, other than reproduction?  So, as humanity continues to improve living conditions in all respects, and the challenges for males disappear, it is possible to conceive of a society where females perform the major functions and only a relatively small percentage of males exist to maintain population levels.’ Thanks as always KMH.