Sexuality, parenthood and population
Sexuality, parenthood and population

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Sexuality, parenthood and population

1.4 Sexuality, parenthood and social policy

Just as procreative sexuality within marriage has rarely been the focus of historical research, as a social phenomenon it has also been viewed as inherently unproblematic in terms of social policy. Unlike today, there was very little explicit legislation or public policy that directly addressed the ‘private’ sphere of marriage and family during the fertility decline. However, there were a number of broad social policy formations that made assumptions and reinforced dominant messages about normative constructions of sexuality, procreation and parenthood. The reproduction of the population was a key focus for such policy formations; religious leaders, doctors, scientists, philanthropists and political movements constantly revisited this issue. The ability of the nation to produce an adequate population to provide labour for industry and the armed forces as the British Empire extended its influence became a matter of acute concern. The health of the population was also constantly evoked through fears about sexuality outside marriage (as we shall see in Section 3.4), an important area of contestation in social policy. The policy frameworks of marriage and family that underpinned population questions were increasingly re-examined, both by policy-makers seeking to support heteronormativity, and radicals who were critical of normative sexualities and gender inequalities.

The dominant liberal conception of social policy which became largely (but never completely) hegemonic by the 1860s was based on the state acting as a regulator rather than a provider of services, not only in the area of welfare, but in a wide range of social and economic contexts. Family, sexuality and personal lives were seen as occupying an entirely different realm from the state, having little or no connection to policy. However, from the 1880s, there was an ideological shift and the state began to be seen as an appropriate vehicle for improving and regulating family life. A number of factors have been identified in this shift including the great social surveys of Charles Booth (1896–1902) and Joseph Rowntree (1899), which exposed that an alarmingly large proportion of the population – about thirty per cent – were living in poverty despite an overall rise in living standards. Local government was expanding, providing new services to families and households such as clean water, electricity and hospitals. The increasing involvement of women in local government, education authorities and the Poor Law brought more attention to the appalling domestic conditions suffered by many wives and mothers (for example, Llewelyn Davis, 1977). The poor physical condition of recruits during the Boer War (1899–1902) became a national scandal, drawing attention to widespread fears about the ability of the nation to produce a healthy working and fighting population. Finally, by the turn of the century there were more political figures who believed that the state (whether national or local) was not only an acceptable but also more efficient and equitable welfare provider. Within this expansion of what was deemed to be legitimate terrain for social policy, measures to regulate, ameliorate and reform the role of parents, particularly mothers, were increasingly proposed as solutions to population concerns.


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