Sexuality, parenthood and population
Sexuality, parenthood and population

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Sexuality, parenthood and population

4 Conclusion

In Section 3 we have looked at marriage, parenthood, sexuality, birth control and population policy in the period of fertility decline in Britain between 1860 and 1930. We can trace the two-way processes by which on the one hand, people drew on formations of social policy when shaping the place that fertility played in their lives, and on the other how social policy reflected and was changed by practices at a personal level. The key role of silences and absences at every level has been emphasised, but we have also investigated some of the points where articulations of concern and anxiety about parenthood and sexuality emerged into public debate and explicit policy developments.

Historians have pointed us to many of the complexities and particularities of class, gender and location that were at play in these processes. From the evidence and explanations we have investigated in this course, we can see the difficulties in developing a single, comprehensive explanation. Indeed, as historians, we would expect any such explanation to be immediately challenged and contested whenever new research questions are raised.

However, despite the contingencies of all historical explanations, there is enough evidence to draw together an argument using the theoretical perspective of feminism. During this period, many couples were questioning and renegotiating their sexual relationships in order to reshape their roles as parents. This process was highly uneven, as couples from different social groups in terms of class, ethnicity, location, religious belief and generation had very different starting points, but in this exploration we focused on gender inequalities as particularly significant in determining how and when fertility decline occurred. Central to these uneven processes were the breaking of silences and the articulation of many unspoken assumptions about the nature of marriage, parenthood and sexuality. The voicing of social policy concerns in all these areas was crucial in providing a language with which to name and delineate sexual experiences, and therefore a means to adapt and change them.

We can identify some areas of social policy of particular importance in these processes. First there were the feminist challenges to the sexual double standard within marriage. Second there were concerns about the population, where questions of the strength of the nation and its labour and military resources led to debates about the role of the state in improving the conditions of responsible parenthood and discouraging others from having children. Finally, debates about birth control began to bring into the open the deep tensions within marriage between the expression of sexuality and the responsibilities of parenthood.

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