Sexuality, parenthood and population
Sexuality, parenthood and population

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Sexuality, parenthood and population

3.3 Parenthood

The deeply embedded inequalities of marriage were also prevalent in parenthood, reflecting the key role of gender in structuring the inequalities found in both. Under common law fathers were given complete control over their children, while mothers had no rights of custody, care or access if the marriage broke down, or even if the husband died. A man could be adulterous or fail to provide for his family without depriving him of his rights. The Poor Laws provided the only legal requirement on a man to support his family; if his wife or children applied for Poor Law support a man could be forced to provide for them if he could. This did not usually mean that the rights of fatherhood included responsibilities for parenting, as female relatives, servants or staff at boarding schools often undertook the day-to-day care of motherless children. Gradually over the nineteenth century mothers improved their situation through campaigning for legislative changes, but adultery on a wife's part continued to cut her off from caring for her children, at least among the upper and middle classes. The 1857 Divorce Act replicated this sexual double standard – women could be divorced for a single adulterous act, while men could only be divorced for adultery combined with another serious marital offence such as violent cruelty, bestiality, incest or bigamy. This double standard reflected longstanding concerns among the aristocracy about maintaining the legitimacy and blood ties between a husband and his children, which explicitly enforced monogamy for wives through the threat of losing their children. Without the material support of family networks, separated or divorced wives also faced the threat of descent into ‘the abyss’ of poverty and were vulnerable to sexual exploitation because of their loss of reputation, which debarred them from respectable occupations and social networks.

It has been argued that by the middle of the nineteenth century, motherhood was discursively placed at the centre of the ideal family as the core of morality, comfort and domesticity whose central purpose was to provide a protected site for childhood (Gillis, 1996). This vision also conflated the status of motherhood with the processes of mothering. Feminists at the time drew on such constructions to argue that wives were entitled to rights concerning their children and protection from predatory male sexual demands. Gradually the guiding factor in divorce and custody cases became the ‘best interest of the child’, although it was not until 1923 that the sexual double standard was removed from divorce and child custody decisions continued to be taken for many more decades on the basis of the sexual behaviour of parents (Holmes, 1997). Feminists within the socialist movement and the Labour Party (founded in 1901) also actively campaigned for better domestic conditions for wives and mothers (Thane, 1991). They sought to ease the physical demands of domestic work through, for example, municipal laundries and improved housing at a time when washing, cooking and cleaning were often undertaken without indoor water or basic domestic appliances. Improvements to maternal health and medical treatment in childbirth were also seen as priorities to reduce the risk of death or permanent injury, which was still very common in giving birth.

Fatherhood was also being reshaped. By the 1860s, middle-class fathers were expected to provide financial support for their dependent wives and children, although they were not always able to do so. Fathers were also expected to protect their wives and children from the moral and physical dangers of public spaces such as public entertainments, and the competitive world of commerce and employment, and to ensure that their children had the best start in adult life. The widening gulf between the home and the workplace meant that fathers spent less time with their families. At the same time, their financial responsibilities increased in order to maintain a home within which an ever-increasing consumer culture was featured through elaborate furnishings, indoor plumbing, gas lighting, and a greater reliance on servants. The increasing tensions between fathers' roles as providers and carers, as well as the challenges to their legal authority over their dependents, could be difficult for families to resolve. Gillis (1996) argues that one way that families expressed these tensions can be seen in the growing significance of rituals of welcoming fathers home from work each day and family occasions such as Christmas and birthday festivities. The cartoon in Figure 4 from Punch magazine shows Father Christmas as a symbolic father figure, generously providing gifts from the outside world, and being welcomed across the threshold as the central focus of the family's celebrations. There were also fears that men were increasingly opting out of marriage and parenthood altogether by working abroad in the Empire or resorting to gentlemen's clubs for their domestic and emotional needs. For working-class families the role of sole breadwinner was also gaining acceptance as an ideal and demands for a ‘family wage’ emerged as central to labour struggles throughout this period. The breadwinner/housewife model served to conceal the ways that many wives undertook casual or home work, taking in laundry or keeping lodgers to make ends meet (Davidoff et al., 1998).

Figure 4
Source: Punch ©
Source: Punch
Figure 4 Father Christmas is welcomed into the domestic domain

However, there were few direct interventions through explicit social policy to ensure that men fulfilled their obligations as providers and protectors. It was only where fathers were absent or grossly negligent that policy emerged, for example with the founding of the National Society for the Protection of Children in 1889, a voluntary society invested with powers by the state to investigate and prosecute fathers and mothers for neglect or abuse of their children. Domestic violence was also the focus of public concern when it involved working-class men, resulting in legislation in 1895 which enabled wives to apply to local magistrates for separation and maintenance from violent husbands (Hammerton, 1992).

However, mothers and fathers were largely left to find their own solutions to the tensions and difficulties of parenthood. Repeated scandals erupted into public view throughout the period under review (Behlmer, 1982), these included baby farming (1870s), the sexual exploitation of girls (1880s) and street children (1890s), indicating that concerns about the failures of parenthood were endemic at this time. The difficulties in the personal lives of mothers and fathers in trying to fulfil these roles were played out in domestic tensions over the management of resources, decisions regarding children over education and work, and in sexual relationships between husbands and wives. In Figure 5 we see a portrayal of the ‘Marriage debate’, raging in the letters pages of the press in 1891, sparked by an article by the feminist Mona Caird.

Figure 5
© The British Library ©
© The British Library
Figure 5 ‘Is marriage a failure?’, The Police News, 1891

Social policy concerning both motherhood and fatherhood was necessarily related to changing ideas about childhood. The participation of children in the labour market was increasingly restricted by various Factory Acts passed between 1802 and 1895 as well as underlying changes in work practices. Arguments to remove children from paid labour drew on a construction of childhood as a period of innocence, separated from the corrupting knowledge and responsibilities of adulthood. The Romantic Movement of the early nineteenth century, which valorised emotion and the beauty of ‘nature’ in, for example, the poetry of William Wordsworth and the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was a key influence on this recasting of childhood, echoed in fictional and visual portrayals of children. Such portrayals were not universally accepted, as parents often relied on children's economic contributions, for example helping with the harvest or caring for younger siblings, and they were often prepared to defy authorities to keep their children in work.

In Extract 4 from The Old Curiosity Shop, first published in 1841, Charles Dickens describes Little Nell, the quintessential example of childhood innocence.

Extract 4: Little Nell

… her small and delicate frame imparted a peculiar youthfulness to her appearance … I love these little people; and it is not a slight thing when they, who are so fresh from God, love us … I saw a little bed, that a fairy might have slept in: it looked so very small and was so prettily arranged … It always grieves me to contemplate the initiation of children into the ways of life, when they are scarcely more than infants. It checks their confidence and simplicity – two of the best qualities that heaven gives them.

(Dickens, 1972, pp. 45–8)

In this romantic vision each child is valued for his or her own qualities and character. And as child mortality began to decline, the chances of each child surviving into adulthood were improving, although infant mortality (death under one year old) remained stubbornly high until the 1920s. Schooling for all younger children became compulsory after 1870, indicating the extent to which childhood had become separated from the world of work (McCoy, 1998). Parenthood increasingly included obligations both to protect children from the adult world, and to prepare them for it. Thus, children were less and less likely to be contributors to family economies through paid or domestic labour, and were increasingly likely to require greater individual care and the expense of an education.

Figure 6
Source: woodcut by George Cattermole from Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop, Chapman & Hall, London, 1841 ©
Woodcut by George Cattermole from Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop, Chapman & Hall, London, 1841
Figure 6 Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop (1841/1972), untainted by the old curiosities of adult knowledge that surround her

The discussion above illustrates some of the ways in which the personal lives of men and women were in part the result of gendered practices and ideologies. It also shows that changes in gendered practices were both cause and effect of wider social change. We can also see that there was no single body of policy that could be described as ‘family policy’. Underpinning the diverse policies that did emerge were particular constructions of marriage, motherhood, fatherhood and childhood, which included the regulation and domestication of a certain kind of heterosexuality. Legally sanctioned marriage, which was increasingly compulsory, enshrined significant inequalities between husbands and wives around both sexual relationships and parenthood, although these were always contested, sometimes successfully. The roles and meanings of motherhood, fatherhood and childhood were undergoing considerable changes, as the family consisting of a provider breadwinner, a domestic housewife, and protected children was becoming increasingly dominant, and although many families did not easily fit this model, social policy was widely predicated on such assumptions.Maintaining this model of a family involved heavy material and emotional costs, as wives and children were increasingly less likely to contribute financially to family economies and as parenthood demanded greater attention and resources. One solution to the tensions that this model engendered was for couples to attempt to restrict the number of children they had, limiting the burdens of parenting and in the process redefining the role of parenthood.


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