History In Focus logo and homepage link

History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 3: Medical History •

Medical History

Fertility, Class and Gender in Britain book jacket

Author's response


Fertility, Class and Gender in Britain, 1860-1940

by Dr. Simon Szreter
Cambridge University Press, 1996

Professor Michael Mason

(University College London)

All scholars are pleased when their toils receive critical appreciation from respected colleagues and I am most grateful to Michael Mason for his generous response to my work. In replying, it may first be relevant to mention how my approach to the subject arose. As an undergraduate I took the paper in demographic and family history taught by the staff of the Cambridge Group. From this I learned how important it is to scrutinise the way in which the necessarily statistical evidence of demographic change has been constructed and to question its presentation in any particular form or model. I also learned that the goal of understanding fertility change is one of the great interdisciplinary intellectual challenges. There needs to be a full, open and critical dialogue between both the fruits of quantitative analysis and the insights of qualitative methods of research, embracing a knowledge of behaviours, attitudes, ideas and institutions. I have endeavoured to deliver a study of this sort and the result has inevitably been a rather long book. For those who are uncomfortable with this catholic approach and prefer to give priority to a more restricted range of evidence, my book is no doubt too wide in scope to make easy reading.

Michael Mason is most certainly not one of these, as his own work in this difficult terrain, The Making of Victorian Sexuality and the The Making of Victorian Sexual Attitudes, clearly shows. He has refounded the historiography of the social history of Victorian sexualities on a far more extensive and systematic reading of the available plebeian source materials for the period 1815-1870 than any previous scholar attempted. To Mason's credit, his aim was the reconstruction of a fully social history of the emergence of 'Victorian' sexual codes. This was an exacting and ambitious intellectual goal, which required him to examine and sift a variety of categories of evidence, relating to behaviour as well as ideas; institutions as well as discourses.

Following Foucault's intervention in the field, the fashionable approach among historians of sexuality has tended towards a focus only on the last of these. The study of discourses typically produces stimulating insights, and almost always shows us how complex, rich and frequently paradoxical is the dialectic of debate and the continual interpretative battle for understanding in human affairs. The second volume of Michael Mason's work, and much of Part II of my own study, contain substantial and extended interpretations of various discourses, drawn from the relevant sources, which are of strategic importance to the main interests of our respective books. However, the elucidation of discourses, per se, has its limits as a method of historical inquiry. Discourses need to be carefully and critically related to our knowledge of the historical contexts, the social, political, economic and cultural changes which they reflected and were attempting to influence. Too little attention to context can produce readings of texts from the past which are primarily interesting in terms of current intellectual preoccupations and much less valid as readings of ideas and motives that were there in the past.

For instance, it critically affects our capacities for historical understanding of the significance and meaning to those involved at the time in, say, the campaigns for the repeal of the contagious diseases acts, the child protection movement, and the female suffrage movement or in the literature on the 'New Woman' or of sexual dysfunction and psychology, when we know that what was happening in terms of the marriage practices and fertility of these generations of the upper and middle classes was historically extraordinary. Sources of information on changing behaviour, suitably analysed, can show us in some detail that the generations which found these political and cultural issues so vital and compelling were experiencing novel and extreme difficulties in accommodating their childrearing and sexual inclinations with their aspirational desires. Without knowing this to be the case from the demographic evidence, it would be impossible to conjure a reliable evaluation of its overwhelming and widespread importance, as a largely unspoken oppressive condition of existence, only through inference from the linguistic evidence of the period, with all its euphemism and ambiguity in this area. Mason has been one of the few cultural historians to try to integrate as fully as possible the results of studying other kinds of historical material, including the detailed findings of demographic and social historians. It does make an important difference to our historical understanding and the numerous strengths of Mason' s work exemplify the interpretative gains which can be had from such a methodologically open approach.

In his review Mason has summarised with lucidity many of the central arguments and themes I have worked to convey. In particular he has spent a lot of time carefully explaining some of the important nuances concerning the notion of 'perceived relative costs of childrearing' and the thesis of a 'culture of abstinence'. He has also offered an obvious departure point for a reply, by placing an interesting question-mark towards the end of the review. He focuses upon my attempt to adjudicate between the relative importance of cultural influences, as against the personal and immediate 'costs' faced by couples in accounting for reduced marital fertility. As Mason points out this interpretative issue arises from my attempt to consider explicitly the relationship between cultural precepts and agents' intentions, rather than simply assuming the priority of one or the other. Mason wonders, however, whether I am not fudging here. I hope not, so let me explain.

In the section from which Mason quotes, pp. 413-20, I was addressing the question of whether the well-documented emergence, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, of a culture of negative attitudes and fear towards sexuality (the social purity movement, feminist disquiet over V.D., the enhanced perception in all quarters of the dangers of childbirth, etc.) could be considered the main cause of the reduction in sexual intercourse which, I argue, reduced marital fertility? This is important because such 'a cultural explanation for reduced coital frequency might, therefore, short circuit the sphere of personal, conscious choice' (p. 417). Smaller families would have resulted not because couples found childrearing more burdensome and tried to do something about it, but because their culture put them off sex sufficiently that they refrained from intercourse and happened to have smaller families as a result. As an historical explanation for the whole process of falling fertility, this would then require the further argument that once they had become accustomed to the relatively small families which occurred as a byproduct of the culture of sexual restraint, they rather preferred them; and so a new social norm of the small family would have been born without there having been conscious intent to bring it about.

After cross-examining other relevant evidence, I rejected such an exclusively 'cultural explanation' as being sufficient, in and of itself, to account for reduced marital fertility. However, I did not, either, wish to argue that spouses' conscious, purposeful choice to reduce fertility could, alone, have accounted for all the sexual restraint necessary to have produced such a sustained fall in the birth-rate. I therefore agree with Michael Mason when he asks, 'Does there not need also to be cultural encouragement from a climate of antagonism to sex?' I am trying to argue that both were important - each necessary and neither, alone, sufficient - in order to bring into existence and to maintain for several decades the regime of attempted abstinence. The perception of the escalating 'costs' of childrearing provided the conscious motivation to control births. But it was the anti-sexual culture which was both conducive to the use of abstinence as the method to achieve that goal and, also, essential, in providing married men and women with a legitimating, anti-sexual rationale, which enabled them to stick to their task.

In particular, there was the complication that the capacity to enjoy sexual pleasure (or the acceptability of expressing its enjoyment) was not commonly believed to be equally distributed between the two sexes throughout much of this period. Male initiation of sexual activity was the convention in the marriage bed. While the married couple may have jointly and consciously agreed to limit their fertility, it was primarily the husband's responsibility to 'behave himself', in order to carry through this resolution. In this asymmetry of responsibility lay much scope for sexual frustration, misunderstanding, loneliness and physical separation between partners, despite their shared aim of a small family. Many women only found sex repugnant or a chore (especi ally, of course, where their husbands proceeded on the assumption that their wives wouldn't enjoy it) and had little sympathy for husbands who couldn't desist after childbearing was complete. It was almost worse for a wife who was interested, since she could principally help her partner stick to his resolve by making herself unavailable, a torture to both parties, as many of the letters to Marie Stopes record. A more consolatory tactic, which some couples favoured, was to subscribe to the sentiment that their pleasure was heightened by saving themselves up for more occasional passion. It was not all gloom, then; but it was all very difficult.

I would, incidentally, like to put in a very good word for Dr T. H. C. Stevenson, the medically-trained Superintendent of Statistics at the G.R.O. who was the architect and original analyst of the 1911 fertility census. In making his review highly readable, I fear that Michael Mason may have given the opposite impression of my opinions. I have nothing but humble admiration for Stevenson's achievement in successfully directing the most colossal and important enquiry into human fertility that had ever been conducted. I hope that, by putting his work into its proper context, it can be seen that Stevenson's professional model of diffusion was a clever solution to the most pressing questions which he faced. My quarrel is not with Stevenson, but with the supine acceptance of his model ever since, by generations of scholars for whom Stevenson's intellectual agenda is past history. In my opinion this has amounted to an enormous intellectual opportunity lost, since other, less tidy and more complex ways of looking at the evidence have not been pursued sufficiently.

Here, then, we come to the question of profitable future directions for research. Michael Mason and I share the perception that the history of sexuality (which I understand to be a collective noun embracing all inclinations) and the history of fertility (also widely interpreted, to include marriage and its alternatives, non-marital fertility, and infertility) cannot be understood without intimate reference to each other. I hope that this dialogue between the study of demographic change and changing sex ualities continues to flourish. Our respective researches have identified wide-ranging and substantial diversity in fertilities and sexualities. It is also clear, from the work of Judith Walkowitz, Elaine Showalter, John Maynard, A. J. Hammerton, John Tosh, Lucy Bland, Lesley Hall and many others, that 'Victorian sexuality' never was a stable, monolithic condition, but a dialectically evolving set of pretexts and rules, frequently under forceful challenge, as in the 1860s, 1890s and 1920s. Nevertherless, despite the rebellious strugglings of sections of the intelligentsia, something more powerful was maintaining the 'hold' of Victorian values over popular sexual culture and behaviour right through to the middle of the twentieth century. Although the regime of attempted abstinence was probably at its most prevalent as a general practice during the period 1870-1920, it cast a long cultural shadow.

My own research on the detailed behavioural patterns has indicated a plethora of distinct, changing fertility-and-nuptiality regimes among Britain's diverse 'communication communities', as I have termed them, during the period 1860-1940. Michael Mason' s investigations have uncovered an equally complex plethora of changing sexual ideologies among the many congregations and religious communities extant in the period 1815-1870. Further research is needed to explore these and other dimensions of variety, both in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries.

The concept of a 'communication community', which I have tried to develop, is based on the argument that it was groups sharing the same 'language' - in terms of the expected responsibilities and roles of a mother, father, child - which shared the same set of fertility and nuptiality patterns and that this resulted in a diversity of fertility (and sexuality) regimes. Michael Mason's work emphasises religious ideology as a primary source of the social roles and identities which would distinguish communicat ion communities from each other, whereas my own work has tended to focus more on the gendering and age-structuring of labour markets and related familial roles in accounting for diversity. I will be interested to see whether this concept of 'communication communities' can be productively developed in future research and to what extent religious and other ideological influences, along with economic and institutional forces, appear to be important in forming and sustaining these social groups and identities.

An obvious priority for research in this field is to deploy the techniques of oral history to study the relationship between sexuality and fertility during the earlier part of this century, before the sources of evidence literally disappear on us. We can bemoan the lack of direct testimony on the experience of sexuality in the nineteenth century, but as potential oral historians, we only have ourselves to blame for a continuing absence of this kind of evidence for the twentieth century. A number of deservedly-successful television documentary series have begun to address questions of sexuality in our recent past, but this is not always the best medium for investigation of the more sensitive and subtle aspects of the subject; and it is notable that there has been virtually no oral history research which has attempted to probe sexuality within marriage! This remains something which we still know remarkably little about in detail because of the prevailing conventions of public reserve until the mid 1960s .

Finally, I would like to emphasise that there is still plenty of research to be done to refine further our understanding of the demography of falling fertility. In terms of the stopping, spacing and starting debate, the analysis presented in Fertility, Class and Gender conclusively rules out the classic 'stopping' thesis (and associated notions of 'diffusion') as a general and exclusive explanation; and it indicates that 'spacing' was of primary significance. But, as I stated in the section of the book on further research, we need careful examination of detailed, parity distribution information (not available in the 1911 census publications), in order now to carry the analysis further: to assess what form spacing took, how important was 'starting' (long delays before a first child), and whether there were also, mixed in, some forms of stopping as well. Indeed, I strongly suspect that further research will in due course show that there was great variation between different communiciation communities and that the concepts of spacing, stopping and starting are in fact too crude and categorical to capture the full complexity of couples' fertility behaviour during this period of unprecedented variation and change. But that all lies in the future for this field.

Original review

Back to reviews index

Back to top