1.1 Declining fertility
In Britain, fertility decline occurred roughly between 1860 and 1930 – a span which includes the middle and end of the Victorian period (1860–1900), the Edwardian period (1900–1914), the First World War (1914–1918) and the 1920s. We will focus on the British experience, although a similar phenomenon has been noted in many other parts of the world. Fertility decline, also known as the demographic transition, is characterised by a shift from a ‘traditional’ norm of large families and high mortality rates to the ‘modern’ trend of small families and low mortality rates. While there were long-established continuities in patterns of sexuality and parenthood, evidence of declining fertility indicates that something fundamentally new was happening between 1860 and 1930. At the heart of this change lay millions of everyday negotiations (both spoken and silent) by couples concerning their sexual activities, the conception of children and parenthood.
In Britain today control over fertility is largely taken for granted and becoming a parent is seen as a decision that has little to do with sexuality. By looking at the demographic transition, we can trace the changes that led to this disconnection through the attempts of many people to determine the kind of parents they wanted to become through deliberate changes to their sexual practices and relationships. Because fertility decline gave rise to significant debates in social policy, it provides an opportunity to explore the relationships between social policy and personal lives through the lens of procreative sexuality and parenthood.
Very little is known about the history of sexuality within marriage. It was only with twentieth-century surveys such as The Kinsey Report, published under the title Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (Kinsey et al., 1948), that sexual practices across broad spectrums of populations were investigated. For the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, evidence about normative sexuality is very difficult to locate and interpret. However, the one indication that heterosexual sexual practices were undergoing significant changes at this time was that the average number of children being born in each family was declining.
Pause for a moment and imagine what being a parent might have been like in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain. Your images and ideas about families in the past may come from television dramas, for example, or historical novels or films. Perhaps you have researched your family tree or studied some history in school or university.
What do you think would be different from being a parent today?
What do you think might be similar?
What influences might social divisions have, such as class, ethnicity, age or gender?
Keep these questions in mind as you read the rest of the course to see if your ideas are confirmed or contradicted by the historical evidence we will be examining.