Sexuality, parenthood and population
Sexuality, parenthood and population

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Sexuality, parenthood and population

3 Social policy and its contexts during the fertility decline

3.1 Demographic changes

From the selective feminist historiography of fertility decline covered in the previous section, we can see how a historical approach that focuses on gender can illuminate the relationships between sexuality, personal lives and social policy. A feminist theoretical perspective concerned with agency and power in gender relations has been particularly helpful in exploring the changes in sexual practices that resulted in fertility decline. It has also drawn attention to the connections between personal lives and the social policy contexts within which gender relations were being reshaped in the arena of sexuality over the period under review.

This historiography is built on a large body of evidence about fertility decline and social policy between the 1860s and the 1920s. We will explore this evidence in more detail in the key areas of marriage, parenthood, sexuality, birth control and population policy. It is not necessary to remember all the details of particular policy or events discussed here, but rather to gain a general understanding of the social policy context in which to place explanations for fertility decline. We begin with some demographic evidence.

Figure 2 shows (a) estimates of mean (average) completed family size, and (b) survivorship of children, for England and Wales (but excluding Wales before the 1831 birth cohort). In the upper pair of lines, the lighter line is derived from an indirect estimating technique (Wrigley and Schofield, 1983, Table 12), and the bold line gives the Registrar General's estimates. The lower pair of lines shows estimates of the average number of children per family surviving to 25 years of age. These are based on the average ages of survival for different birth cohorts (a birth cohort consists of all those born in a particular year or group of years). The results were corrected for illegitimacy rates and for the number of people who never married (Anderson, 1993, pp. 38–9 and n.92).

Figure 2
Figure 2 Historical trends in family size (Source: based on Anderson, 1993, p. 38, Figure 1.7)

Activity 3

The graph in Figure 2 provides a dramatic, visual image of the change in the population structure of England and Wales. Take a few minutes to look at what it is showing us.

  • What is meant by ‘completed family size’?

  • What do the two downward lines represent?


Michael Anderson (1993) described the top lines of it thus:

The patterns are clear, with a peak of between 5.7 and 6.2 children per married woman being reached for those born between 1771 and 1831 and a steady fall in fertility occurring from the 1870s. Those born in the 1880s had only half as many children to care for, entertain, clothe and feed as their parents had had; their own children had only two-thirds as many as they did. In two generations – and across almost the whole population – the average number of children born per married woman fell from around six to only a little over two.

(Anderson, 1993, p. 39)

He goes on to point out that the improvements in mortality rates meant that average completed family size did not decline quite so rapidly as the average number of children born per family. Thus, there were conflicting pressures: births were declining, but more children were surviving into adulthood. However, the overall results were declines in both births and completed family size.

It is important to remember that these figures are averages, and that the number of children in any particular family has always varied. Thus, while average completed family size was declining, there were many children who lived in large families long after the fertility decline began.

It is clear from these statistics that something very important was happening. To explain both how and why fertility decline occurred, we need to understand the social contexts within which it took place. In any historical account of social policy a range of evidence and a number of approaches are drawn upon, none of which are definitive or uncontested, just as social policy itself has constantly been challenged and redefined.

Figure 3
Figure 3 The Fielding family tree over four generations

The family tree in Figure 3 depicts the changes in family size over four generations by showing the composition of one family in each generation. The Fieldings started as a family of farm labourers and straw plaiters living in Hertfordshire in the nineteenth century. In George Fielding's family we can see how step-families were brought together through the death of spouses while their children were still young. Of the six children, two were from his first marriage to Kezia Dolt, a neighbour. His second wife, his sister-in-law's sister, brought a child to the family from her first marriage, and three children were born from this second marriage. They had moved from the countryside to the outskirts of London where George eventually became a brewery foreman. In the next generation, Herbert James worked as a delivery-man for a department store. In his marriage, we see a sharp reduction in family size to three children, all of whom lived to old age. His third child, Herbert Edward, became a milkman after serving in the Second World War and Jean, his wife, came to London from a mining town in Wales to work as a domestic servant before the war. They had only two children, one worked in the civil service, the other in higher education, showing the final stages of the process of fertility decline.


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