Sexuality, parenthood and population
Sexuality, parenthood and population

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Sexuality, parenthood and population

2 Explaining fertility decline from a feminist perspective

Feminist theory underpins one of the most influential historiographies of fertility decline and it allows us to foreground gender as a dominant feature in questions of heterosexuality and parenthood. This is not to suggest that divisions of class, ‘race’, (dis)ability and generation are unimportant in this historical phenomenon, and any full understanding of fertility decline would be incomplete without including them. But in this course the main focus will be on gender and these other social divisions will not be discussed at length.

Feminist explanations for fertility decline arose as a critique of a long-standing historiography dominated by the analysis and interpretation of demographic data (that is statistics about birth, death and fertility). This data gave rise to the theory of demographic transition, which suggested that fertility decline was inherent in the development of all modern societies. Indeed low population growth has been interpreted as an essential marker of economic and social modernity. A three-stage transition was identified beginning with pre-industrial populations when high birth rates are balanced by high mortality, followed by an interim ‘transition’ stage of rapid industrial growth when death rates fall but birth rates remain high leading to a rapid population increase. Finally, in the third stage, fertility declines and populations reach a new, ‘low-pressure’ equilibrium. According to this theory rising living standards along with advances in medicine and technology improve mortality rates before influencing fertility. To support this hypothesis, demographic historians looked for evidence about the timing and extent of rising living standards, drawing on detailed quantitative information on historical wages and prices. Falling fertility was seen as a slower process, a result of cultural changes whereby the material benefits of smaller families, the triumph of rational choice and improvement in the condition/status of women gradually replaced ‘traditional’ and ‘non-rational’ beliefs about the value of fecundity. People were almost completely absent from this theory, which ignored individual agency, emotions and desires.

Demographic historians were particularly interested in the class-specific pattern of fertility decline in Britain, whereby the aristocracy and the professional middle classes were first to have smaller families, followed by the lower middle class, then the skilled manual class, and finally the unskilled. It was initially argued that it was the diffusion of knowledge about birth control from the middle to the working classes that determined this pattern (Beveridge, 1925). The catalytic point in Britain was identified as the 1877 trial for obscenity of Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh for publishing a US pamphlet about contraception in a cheap and accessible edition, which attracted enormous publicity, breaking through the silences about birth control.

But this event on its own is an unsatisfactory explanation for the profound cultural changes that led to fertility decline. Himes (1936) identified a number of wider cultural influences including secularism, feminism, hedonism and the rational pursuit of materialism as leading to a ‘democratisation’ of birth control, making its use increasingly acceptable. Sociological explanations about the importance of household economies were also added, with growing restrictions on child labour and compulsory education (from 1870) seen as critical factors in fertility decisions (Charles, 1934). Banks (1954) developed this argument further by showing that bourgeois families required increasing material resources to maintain their prosperity and status, with children's education and upbringing representing an increasing financial burden. Smaller families were seen as the answer to these tensions.

Demographic transition theory has continued to be very influential, particularly in policy relating to developing countries, but it has also attracted many critics. In Britain, early modern (c.1600–1800) fertility patterns were found to be highly variable and complex before ‘the transition’, and the transition itself was far from uniform when examined in detail. An overarching single dynamic of change was displaced by a much more complicated tangle of ideas and practices from which the norm of smaller families gradually emerged (Szreter, 1996).

Feminist historians questioned not only the unitary nature of transition theory, but also its very starting point in demography.

Activity 2

As you read through Extract 2 by Alison Mackinnon, try to identify her criticisms of transition theory. Which of these relate specifically to gender?

Extract 2: ‘Were women present at the demographic transition?’

The term [fertility decline] is strangely disembodied, indicating, as several feminist historians have pointed out, some type of transhistorical, elemental and natural force akin, perhaps, to the ebb and flow of the tide rather than the historically specific refusal or unwillingness of considerable numbers of women to continue to have large numbers of babies … The term ‘fertility decline’ operates to ground contemporary issues in a natural universe uncontaminated by social change.

How has it come to be a characteristic of populations, rather than of persons? How has it come to have an apparently unitary and seamless meaning? What meanings have collected around the term, and how has it come to be so central in explanations of social change, while at the same time masking the social and sexual relations of men and women, the changing social expressions of desire, the changing social positioning of those who conceive and bear generations of children? Finally, why are fertility concerns such a powerful element in the symbolic order of nations …?

(Mackinnon, 1995, p. 224)


Mackinnon argues that demographic explanations fail to engage with personal experiences, and it is only by exploring how men and women made changes in their personal lives that fertility decline can be understood. She also questions the dominance of demographic explanations, seeing their power as rooted in a political agenda which ignores the agency of those who produced this change. She highlights:

  • the importance of women as active agents;

  • the role of sexualities and desires in achieving change;

  • the social conditions within which men and women found themselves; and

  • the links between fertility and concepts of the nation.

All of the strands identified by Mackinnon have been developed in the work of feminist historians who have made their starting point the investigation of the connections between aspects of personal life and fertility decline. Sheila Johansson (1979), for example, has argued that the focus on families masks the different interests of husbands and wives in fertility control, reflecting a longstanding feminist emphasis on unpacking ‘the family’ to recognise the differences of power between genders and generations. Others such as Diana Gittins (1982), interested in looking at social and economic conditions for women, turned the historical focus onto women's patterns of work as well as family ideologies and the availability of birth control.

By investigating the role of birth control in personal lives, researchers could directly address sexuality by exploring the dynamics of negotiations about sexual practices between men and women, whether overt or silent, which reduced the chances of pregnancy (see Section 4). Wally Seccombe (1993) examined conjugal relationships to argue that the most common methods of fertility control – abstinence and coitus interruptus – required male cooperation. It was the ‘first wave’ feminist movement of the late nineteenth century, he argues, that gave women new ways of negotiating their position as mothers. He points to the rising use of abortion from the beginning of the twentieth century, ‘representing women's fierce determination to terminate pregnancies that their husbands had not been conscientious enough to prevent’ (Seccombe, 1993, p. 193). Other research indicates that women were not necessarily the key instigators in fertility decisions as it was more often husbands who were able to determine conjugal sexual practices. ‘Many women revealed that taking a dominant role in contraceptive use was difficult because it meant playing a proactive sexual role they were unaccustomed to’ (Fisher, 2000, p. 311).

Such insights are useful in understanding a range of social policy concerns, but it has been the areas of population and constructions of the nation that have been most widely subjected to a feminist analysis which links parenthood and social policy. Anna Davin (1978), writing from a Marxist feminist perspective, made connections between the growth of the infant welfare movement from the 1890s, concerns about fertility decline, and the requirements of nation and Empire for a healthy population. She pointed to the emergence of the idea that children were not just the concern of their parents, but of the imperial nation, as seen most strikingly in the movement to educate working-class women to be better mothers. The St Pancras School for Mothers was an influential model for the infant welfare movement, where mothers were seen as central to efforts to improve infant and child health. Figure 1 visually reflects the movement's idealisation of working-class motherhood.

Figure 1
© The Women’s Library ©
© The Women’s Library
Figure 1 St Pancras School for Mothers (1907)

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