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.

International Law Requires Gender Equality in Prison

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Under international law, everyone is required to consider and promote gender equality. With United Nations Resolution A/RES/55/2, the world community resolved “to promote gender equality.” United Nations Resolution A/RES/S-23/2, section 6, emphasizes that “men must involve themselves and take joint responsibility with women for the promotion of gender equality.” United Nations Resolution A/RES/S-23/3 requires national governments, under section 76(f) to “ensure that the design of all government information policies and strategies is gender-sensitive.” Under section 76(c), national government must provide necessary resources so that “gender mainstreaming is integrated into all policies, programmes and projects.” European Community law includes similar requirements for gender equality. Sixteen men per woman or even four men per woman absent in punishment are large gender inequalities. Men must join with women to promote gender equality in punishment. For he and she for imprisoned men, scrutinizing gender bias in defining crimes and gender bias in sentencing for criminal offenses would be a good start.

The United Nations’ Human Development Report has recognized the importance of having an equal men-women sex ratio. Its pioneering Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) combined four sub-measures: the share of seats in parliament held by women; the share of women legislators, senior officials, and managers; the share of women professional and technical workers; and the ratio of estimated female to male earned income. These sub-measures were indexed with respect to a goal of an equal sex ratio:

The rationale for this indexation: in an ideal society, with equal empowerment of the sexes, the GEM variables would equal 50% — that is, women’s share would equal men’s share for each variable.^

The first three of GEM’s four sub-measures have direct relevance only to a small number of men and women. The last sub-measure, female to male earned income, ignores difference in experience, working hours, and job characteristics such as the risk of being killed on the job in paid work. It also ignores sex-biased familial divisions of labor between paid and unpaid work, as well as sex-biased family law. Worker characteristics and job preferences can economically explain a large portion of the inequality in the sex ratio of earnings. Given these facts, the Gender Empowerment Measure, and similar subsequent measures, indicate strong international support for having an equal ratio of men to women across a variety of elite positions.

International law requires men and women to take joint responsibility for promoting greater gender equality. Gender equality should be more important than merely a tool for elites competing for elite positions. Prisoners are among persons objectively most impoverished in human development. Concern about gender inequality should give priority concern to gender inequality in prison.