17th century men made misleading gender claims, says Oxford historian

29 November 2016

Men in the 17th century believed they were outnumbered by women despite a lack of evidence for this claim, new research has revealed.

Dr Margaret Pelling, a historian at Oxford University, looked at books, pamphlets and religious tracts from the period for a study which has now been published in The Historical Journal.

She found numerous references by male writers to being outnumbered by women, but no statistical evidence to support this view.

In fact, a contemporary survey of mortality records in London by John Graunt showed that, in the capital, slightly more men than women were born during the period so the balance between men and women would have been roughly equal.

‘It seems to have been taken for granted that there were more women than men in 17th century England, yet one of very few population surveys of the time suggests this was not the case,’ says Dr Pelling.

She says there was a misogynistic undertone to these numerical claims.

‘Early modern men were most likely to make numerical claims about women where there were too many of a ‘problematic’ kind,’ she says. ‘Women were expected to be silent, chaste and more or less confined to the household, their identity submerged in that of a husband, father or master.’

‘Independent women were particularly objectionable, especially if they banded together in shows of female solidarity for political or religious reasons.’

So even when John Graunt’s findings were published, some men continued to believe that they were being overwhelmed by women.

‘It is a matter of everyday experience that statistics, among other facts, are ignored if this suits the argument,’ says Dr Pelling.

Other reasons for this belief include the Civil Wars which led to many male deaths and others leaving the country, and a lack of numeracy at the time.

Dr Pelling says that during the early modern period, most Englishmen were in favour of an overall rise in the population. ‘They saw increased population as an important indicator of national success, and a shrinking population as a warning of decline, especially in comparison with other countries,’ she says.

‘But in spite of this, people in England continued to be reluctant to try to count its population.’

Dr Pelling is available for interview on Margaret.pelling@history.ox.ac.uk

The full article can be found here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/historical-journal/article/far-too-many-women-john-graunt-the-sex-ratio-and-the-cultural-determination-of-number-in-seventeenth-century-england/38AFF8772CF25BC25D3DCE543158AC03