Families and parenting

Families and parenting

For centuries raising children has been thought of as ‘women’s work’, as a natural extension of carrying a child and giving birth. Discover how the Women’s Liberation Movement challenged this idea and experimented with different childcare and domestic arrangements.
For centuries raising children has been thought of as women’s work, as a natural extension of carrying a child and giving birth. The Women’s Liberation Movement challenged this idea. They wanted to validate mothering as an activity, while enabling both women and men to take equal responsibility for raising children. During the 1970s mothers and fathers in the WLM, and the gay and lesbian movements, experimented with different childcare and domestic arrangements.

Susie Orbach talks about feminism reinstating mothering


For many people having children is the most fulfilling and joyful aspect of their lives. Feminists in the WLM shared the pleasures of mothering and families, but they also acknowledged the challenges and contradictions inherent in loving and caring for other people, particularly children. If unsupported, looking after a small baby who is entirely dependent on you can be very isolating and restrictive. Women often find themselves conflicted as they try to provide the best possible care for their child while wanting to retain their own identity and autonomy.

The Women’s Liberation Movement understood the importance of motherhood and wanted it to be recognised as a valuable and difficult job. Alongside this the movement believed it was also important for women to be able to have a choice about having children or not, and for this choice to be an active one, rather than a passive one (i.e. not necessarily dictated by presence or lack of a husband). Reliable contraception is a precondition for women’s emancipation and indeed a culture’s development. You can find out more about this in Activism. In Britain today, for instance, mothers spend only six to seven years bearing and rearing children before full-time schooling, whereas up until the Second World War, women sometimes had ten or more pregnancies and so spent much more time bringing up children. Some women still actively choose to look after their children for their first few years. However, the shortage of affordable, reliable childcare for the under-fives and after-school care means that many women have little choice but to stay at home with their children. Free 24-hour nurseries was one of the first four demands of the WLM in 1970; it was recognised by feminists then that if married mothers worked night shifts, it was because the family needed the money. If childcare covered the full working day and night, then mothers could combine paid employment with raising children and caring for other family members.

Why do women often end up holding the baby?

Women have often given up or put on hold their careers while their children are very young. There are many reasons why women might decide to dedicate themselves to childcare – financial, practical and, of course, emotional. Mothers can become caught in a circle: their careers falter while they stay at home with children because, once out of the workplace, they do not progress in their career and receive a significantly lower salary than contemporaries who have remained in full-time employment. Returning to work can therefore be a financial as well as logistical challenge that prevents women from leaving the domestic sphere.

Ann Oakley discusses motherhood and depression

Creative solutions to the problem of childcare

During the 1970s women started finding their own solutions to these problems. The collective approach to childcare meant that children and mothers had companionship, as well as allowing mothers time to go to work. Bronagh Hinds was instrumental in setting up an informal crèche, with fully trained staff, to look after her children and those of friends. Fully communal living arrangements were also tried out during the Women’s Liberation Movement. Benefits included being able to share childcare and housework.

Catherine Hall describes collective childcare

Men and childcare

From the start feminism called for a redistribution of parenting roles. In the 1970s and ‘80s pioneering men who supported the WLM were involved in looking after their children, sometimes full-time. While attitudes towards fatherhood have changed in the last 40 years, with men more involved in childcare and domestic responsibilities, those who give up careers to become full-time carers for their children are still regarded as a novelty. You can hear more about men trying to take on more childcare in Who We Were, Who We Are.

Alternative family forms

The shape and nature of families in the UK is in a constant state of change. Although non-nuclear families have always existed, legislation and changing social attitudes from the 1960s onwards have meant that it has become easier for people to distance themselves from the traditional formulation of husband, wife and 2.4 children (commonly referenced as the UK average). Communal living and calling on the support of extended families has become more common in the UK, influenced by other cultures and the need to find new ways of sharing domestic labour.
  • Sisterhood and After Research Team
  • This article was researched and written by the Sisterhood and After Research Team, who are experts in the history of contemporary feminism and narrative life methods. The team included Abi Barber, Dr Polly Russell, Dr Margaretta Jolly, Dr Rachel Cohen, Dr Freya Johnson-Ross and Dr Lucy Delap. Further information about the team and project is available in the About the project section.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.