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Family Planning and Sex in Britain 1900–1960

Before the mid-20th century, approaches to family planning were largely governed by society’s restrictive views on sex. Kate Fisher explores the birth control campaigns before the introduction of the pill in the 1960s.

The 20th century (more particularly before the 1970s) is sometimes characterised as a ‘golden age’ of heterosexual normativity. Marriages involved a greater proportion of the population, started earlier and lasted longer. Rates of marriage also increased such that the 20th century sees historically very low numbers of never married and a relatively low average age at first marriage. Marriage was idealised across popular culture, including in films, novels, music and magazines. Advice guides – whether medical, religious or feminist – presented monogamous marriage, based on romantic love, domesticity and successful reproduction, as the key to a fulfilled and healthy life. Moreover, the version of heterosexuality championed in this material was self-consciously modern and enlightened. Many advice authors presented 20th-century marital bliss in which couples worked together to achieve sexual equality and mutual pleasure as a progressive change from a recent Victorian past imagined to be patriarchal and sexually repressive.

Simultaneously, as historians increasingly recognise, cultural assertions of powerful heteronormativity coincided with changes, tensions and challenges to heteronormative life. From the start of the century we witness calls for the relaxation of divorce laws, anxieties about the nature and scale of homosexuality, concerns about maternal health, fears about the prevalence of abortion and considerable changes in the nature of married life brought about by a dramatic drop in the average number of children born to married couples. Visions of perfect marital harmony should be viewed in part as attempts to reinforce, redefine and stabilise heteronormative, nuclear family building in a world in which the lived experience of sexuality was turbulent and varied.

What pressures did women face to have children?

Having children was seen by many as women’s natural destiny and framed as essential to both marital happiness and to women’s health. The reality, of course, was that not all marriages were reproductive, and not all families were genetically linked. Miscarriages and infertility caused much unhappiness. The experiences of women who suffered from miscarriages (often compounded by the health complications of frequent pregnancy) or found themselves unexpectedly and unhappily infertile were politicised by birth control campaigners who sought to demonstrate that their demands for birth control were part of a pro-family stance that was necessary to maintain maternal health.

Infertility was a cause of distress to many, and although adoption and foster care was not uncommon, at the beginning of the 20th century it was largely informal, tainted by fears of abuse and reports of ‘baby farming’, and offered few rights and protections to adoptive parents, birth parents or children.

Following efforts by the Child Adoption Association (NCAA) and the National Adoption Society, legislation was introduced starting in 1929. By mid-century adoption was framed as the solution to child destitution and illegitimacy. Adoption rates reached a peak of over 20,000 a year in the 1960s, before falling following the decriminalisation of abortion and the availability of contraception on the NHS (including the Pill).

Although same-sex couples were generally excluded from formal adoption processes, the importance of family building and child rearing to some homosexual lives should not be overlooked. Options did exist for those with sufficient resources (and heterosexual cover), as shown by the example of the modernist writer Bryher’s adoption of her lover Hilda Doolittle’s daughter Perdita in 1928 (assisted by her husband Kenneth Macpherson). Homosexual campaigner for prison reform George Ives established a large queer family household consisting of his lovers, their wives and children. Other homosexual men combined heterosexual family units with extra-marital male lovers. Such queer families became increasingly hard to create as the post-war formalisation of who could, or could not adopt codified and cemented distinctions between proper and improper forms of parenthood.

Birth control and political agendas

For many men and women, family building involved a desire to restrict the number of pregnancies, and concerted efforts saw the birth rate drop significantly during the first half of the 20th century, reaching a historic low in the early 1930s. Couples were aided in their attempts to avoid unwanted pregnancies by campaigners who sought to normalise the use of contraception, establish birth control as part and parcel of a functioning marriage, and make methods of family limitation accessible and affordable, including via the establishment of specialised clinics.

The narrative politics of such campaigns often linked the use of birth control to narratives of marital happiness and personal fulfilment. Marriage guides and advice columns frequently framed birth control as an element of sexual autonomy, essential to a married woman’s physical health, emotional and mental vigour, heterosexual pleasure and bodily self-education.

Pessary and contraception sponge

Photograph of an intra-cervical device - wishbone or gold spring, pessary, in silver and gold

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Usage terms WIshbone or gold spring pessary, Europe, 1880-1936 Credit: Science Museum Group, London. © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) Contraceptive sponge, United Kingdom, 1901-1930. Credit: Science Museum, London. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Birth control became part and parcel of a changing sexual script that involved the eroticisation of heterosexual marriage and the liberation of women from the sexual repression and slavery associated with earlier generations.

However, campaigns for the normalisation of birth control, and attempts to provide practical birth control advice and the establishment of clinics drew on a range of additional political strands. The image of the downtrodden wife, struggling to feed a family on low wages, burdened by the fear of additional pregnancies, at risk of seeking an illegal and dangerous abortion and with uterine damage caused by previous births, was a galvanising ‘figure’ across campaigners of all political persuasions. On the left, despite the structural chauvinism of the Labour Party in Britain, a working-class woman’s inability to access contraceptive methods or advice that was more easily obtained by her middle-class counterpart informed socialist-feminists such as Dora Russell and Stella Browne. Their Workers’ Birth Control Group gave countrywide lectures on birth control. For early-to-mid-century socialist activists, birth control was less a matter of individual self-fulfilment or personal rights and more a part of the collective attempt to build a utopian society based on democratic, comradely, pleasure-based sexual relationships. From the early 1920s, birth control clinics were established in working-class districts of British towns and cities, becoming part of some local authorities’ maternal and child welfare provision from the 1930s.

Photograph of Stopes birth control clinic

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Other birth control campaigners saw the question of fertility control less as one of working-class empowerment and more as an issue of racial progress and sexual modernisation in the context of high imperialism. A fear that excessive fertility among the ‘weaker’ classes would accelerate the debilitation of the white race and its potential future subjugation fuelled many attempts to disseminate information about or promote contraceptive use, both in Britain and further afield.

Photograph of Marie Stopes

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Usage terms Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Simultaneously, healthy and racially superior families, including settler colonists, were invited to produce significant numbers of splendid (white) babies as part of their patriotic duty. Not only was some feminism aligned to eugenics, but the centrality of transnational discussions of race and reproduction to British birth control advocacy, tainted the movement in the eyes of many in the wider women’s movement.

Article text © Kate Fisher

  • Kate Fisher
  • Dr Kate Fisher teaches social and cultural history at the University of Exeter, where her research focuses on the history of sexuality in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Kate is author of Birth Control, Sex and Marriage in Britain, 1918-1960, which won the Royal Historical Society’s Whitfield Prize in 2007 and co-author of Sex Before the Sexual Revolution.