A Natural Female Disadvantage? Maternal Mortality and the Role of Nutrition Related Causes of Death in the Netherlands, 1875-1899


  • Angelique Janssens Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen
  • Elien Van Dongen Lund University




Maternal Mortality, Causes of Death, Nineteenth Century, the Netherlands


This article addresses the question whether maternal mortality should be excluded from the study of excess female mortality. This phenomenon points to lower survival chances for women in certain age groups as opposed to men in the same age group. The existence of excess female mortality has been established for a number of European countries, primarily for the nineteenth century period, and it has also been observed for the Netherlands between approximately 1850 and 1930. There are strong indications that in this period Dutch women were at a disadvantage compared to men, most notably between the ages of 10 to 19, but also in the adult years after age 20. The survival disadvantage for women between age 20 and 50 may be related to the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth. These maternal mortality risks may seem a natural female disadvantage. However, deficiencies in nutrition may seriously enhance the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth. Hence, if women are less privileged in access to food, causing increased levels of maternal mortality, the risk to die during pregnancy and during or after childbirth should be considered as part of the phenomenon of excess female mortality. The results of our analysis indicate that maternal mortality in this period in the Netherlands is partly the effect of the female nutritional disease environment. In particular, the incidence of nutrition-related deaths among women in fertile ages, such as tuberculosis, increase maternal mortality. We therefore assume that gender disadvantages in the access to foodstuffs of sufficient nutritional quality increased the level of maternal mortality. Consequently, in research on excess female mortality maternal mortality cannot be simply discounted as a natural disadvantage which should be left out of measures of excess female mortality.


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Author Biographies

Angelique Janssens, Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen

Angélique Janssens is professor of Historical Demography at Radboud University Nijmegen and Maastricht University. She is a member of the Radboud Group for Historical Demography and Family History. She is PI of the Genes, Germs and Resources project on familial factors of early death and exceptional survival, and the European research network SHiP which studies health in port cities. She has published widely on topics ranging from family history, women’s life courses, infant and child mortality and male breadwinning. Currently she is also the Scientific Director of the N.W. Posthumus Institute.

Elien Van Dongen, Lund University

Elien van Dongen is PhD student at the Center of Economic Demography, Department of Economic History at Lund University, Sweden. Her project, which is part of the European ITN project LONGPOP,  focusses on long-term intergenerational mobility trends in Sweden (1850-2017). More specifically, she is interested in multigenerational mobility, class heterogeneity in mobility, the relationship between intergenerational mobility and gender (through homogamy and female labor force participation) and the ‘class pay gap’. She studied social and economic history at Radboud University Nijmegen. At Radboud University she is involved in research on nineteenth-century Dutch mortality.




How to Cite

Janssens, A., & Van Dongen, E. (2018). A Natural Female Disadvantage? Maternal Mortality and the Role of Nutrition Related Causes of Death in the Netherlands, 1875-1899. TSEG - The Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History, 14(4), 84–115. https://doi.org/10.18352/tseg.988