Women in Comparative Societies

Bare Branches

Valerie M. Hudson and

Andrea M. den Boer


What are the authors trying to explain?

What historical trends regarding infanticide do they uncover?

Under what conditions has infanticide taken place?



In short, they argue that

1) Human security depends upon environmental security (availability of life sustaining resources and freedom from threat, invasion)

2) Therefore, scarcity is the chief catalyst for both social competition and social conflict.

3) When life sustaining resources are scarce, the group members that seem most expendable, or able to contribute least to group security are often sacrificed.

4) Women themselves have often been construed as a resource to be denied competing groups, i.e., murdered rather than turned over to competitors

to preserve group or family social boundaries and resource exclusivity.


Sex selection

When does sex selective infanticide take place? Why is there a consistent preference for boys?


As a response to military invasion

In chronically fragile subsistence system

When (it is assumed that) sons are better able to provide physical defense of resource accumulation, and when sons are the primary creators of additional accumulation in societies centered around hunting

Sons are capable of producing more children than daughters.

Are there exceptions to the preference for boys?  Under what kinds of circumstances might a preference for girls?

  1. In societies where risk and wealth are shared more equally, there is a greater reciprocal exchange of daughters and female infanticide is less likely.
  2. In economies where women are primary creators of wealth, sex ratios are more balanced.  Matrilineal inheritance may occur and daughters are more valuable.




families choose their daughter’s husbands from families of higher social status.


When the marriage of daughters would be too costly or socially threatening, families pull them out of the marriage market mostly by engaging in female infanticide.


In many cases, female infanticide’s persistence has been further guaranteed by religious sanction that evolves over time and by the imperatives that hypergyny forces on households of different social rank.


Chapter 2:  Offspring Sex Selection in Historical Perspective: From Infanticide to Sex-Selective Abortion and the Problem of “Missing Females”


Non-Sex-Related Selection Practices Among Animals:

Some animals eat their young after birth


Infanticide for the purpose of maintaining order in social hierarchies has been documented in apes and monkeys


Abortion also found in some animal species

Ex. Stallions often kick mares impregnated by previous stallion of the herd to induce abortion


Pregnant female mice exposed to pheromones of new male spontaneously abort



What, if any thing, do these examples tell us about possible causes of infanticide and abortion among humans?


Abortion and infanticide in human history:

Infanticide and abortion have been commonly practiced in societies all over the world throughout history.  There have been six non-sex-related reasons why people have committed infanticide:

  1. Virtually all cultures have either overlooked or sanctioned the disposal of “imperfect” infants through abandonment or infanticide
  2. Unusual births or the birth of a child with unusual characteristics could also end in infanticide.  Ex: birth of twins, or position in birth order
  3. Children born outside of social convention. Ex: children born outside of wedlock, or born as a result of rape or incest
  4. Infants could be killed if they were thought to be an unacceptable burden on the family. Ex: Ancient Greece, if a father decided the child was unwanted, it would usually be buried alive. Beijing alone, “several thousand babies were thrown onto the streets like refuse, to be collected each morning by carriers who dumped then into a huge pit outside the city”
  5. During periods of drought or sever flooding, parents in some cultures might kill infants and young children to prevent them form becoming a drain on scarce resources.
  6. Most common reason has been parent’s desire to space for children to avoid having to care for too many infants and toddlers at the same time.


Historically, therefore, infant life was generally considered of little value. (Even in Christian societies)


Sex-selective practices

female offspring has been undervalued in most regions of the world. 


The most common reason for son preference is economic

Male labor which is valued higher than female labor. 


High levels of son preference are associated with low female employment opportunities and low levels of female education. 


Also, cultural practices such as dowry payments for brides and the roles of men in religious rites increase the desire for sons. 


Preference for sons is found all over the world, but is most noticeable in Asia where families manipulate their composition.


Son preference is measured by high sex ratios at birth, in early childhood, and in the overall population. 


Sex-selective ratios are also measured by differences in male and female mortality rates. 


High birth sex ratios are attributed to the use of sex-selective technology for abortion of females and these are the most common method. 


**Females can also have unequal access to health care and nutrition, which is also a form of infanticide.



According to recent estimates, the number of missing females is greater than 90 million.  China accounts for 45 percent and India for 43 percent of the total number of missing females, and five other countries account for the remaining 12 percent.