Historical European Sex Ratio in Punishment

face of a prisoner

Sex Ratio of Persons Absent in Life-Disposing Punishment
(Europe, 16th to 19th Centuries)

Subject PositionMen Per WomanTimePlace
Sources for figures provided here.
dead (hung)6.71558-1608Danzig, Germany
dead (hung)1.61657-1707Danzig, Germany
dead (hung)about 81533-1632Nuremberg, Germany
dead (hung)about 1.81633-1722Nuremberg, Germany
dead (hung)8.01705-1730London and Middlesex, England
banished (to America)1.71719-1775United Kingdom
banished (to Australia)3.21795-1815United Kingdom
in prison41860-1865England and Wales
in prison3.11825The Netherlands
in prison4.11833Belgium
in prison3.91861-1862France (long-term confinement)

Sex ratios of persons absent in life-disposing punishment have varied widely across history and across societies. In Europe from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, about four times as many men as women were suffering life-disposing punishment. In England and Wales from 1750 to 2010, the ratio of men to women suffering life-disposing punishment varied from five to forty. Around the world in 2010, about fifteen men were in prison for every woman in prison.

Gender and the operation of justice systems are highly complex. In recent decades, the social construction of scholarly literature on the social construction of gender has produced extensive criticism of the use of the word woman. In a further scholarly development, scholarship has criticized the use of the word women.^ Scholars have explored with uncanny subtlety and complexity how increases in the ratio of men to women in prison indicate increasing oppression of women. Such work can easily be mind-dulling and heart-numbing.

Differences in the sex ratio of persons absent in punishment, in contrast, are significant, readily understandable differences open to compassionate understanding. Human communities typically contain a roughly equal number of women and men. The characteristic human act of biological reproduction involves an equal ratio of men to women (one-to-one). In ordinary life, persons easily recognize differences in the sex ratio of a group’s composition. Moreover, gender equality is an important goal under international law. Historical sex ratios of persons absent in punishment are worthy of deep contemplation.

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