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Why aren’t women having more babies? Feminism didn't kill the birth rate — liberal individualism did

Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty

March 13, 2020   6 mins

Did feminism kill the birth rate? The circumstantial evidence is damning. The ‘Women’s Liberation’ movement kicked off in earnest in the Sixties and Seventies, demanding (among other things) free contraception and abortion on demand. And over the same decades, the fertility rate crashed.

This should not be a surprise. Human babies take a long time to reach independence, which confers significant obligations on their parents. Before the existence of the welfare state, or reliable contraception, societies attempted to hold both men and women to these obligations by stigmatising sex outside marriage, and as far as possible forcing marriage on any couple whose illicit fun resulted in an unplanned pregnancy.

The alternatives to a ‘shotgun wedding’ were terrifying: in the 19th century, unmarried pregnancy could leave a woman indigent, imprisoned in near-slavery in places like the Magdalene laundries, as or at grave physical risk in the hands of a backstreet abortionist. Without easy access to divorce, too, a shotgun wedding could leave a mother dependent for life on an abusive spouse.

It is no wonder, then, that the 20th century women’s liberation movement sought economic independence and control over fertility for women. Feminists founded organisations such as Women’s Aid to challenge domestic abuse and violence, agitated for equal pay and, more fundamentally still, demanded greater control for women over their own fertility.

In 1961, the contraceptive pill was first made available. In 1968, the Abortion Act made it legal to terminate a pregnancy. And in 1974, health authorities were given permission to prescribe the contraceptive pill to unmarried women. The marriage rate promptly began to fall, and continued to do so steadily from its 1970 peak of nearly 60% before stabilising at around 20% at the turn of the century.

It seems that when marriage and raising babies becomes optional rather than inevitable, many women will choose to prioritise other things (I know – imagine!). Today, those couples who still marry do so an average of more than a decade later than they did in 1970. The average age of having a first baby has climbed from 23.7 in 1970 to 28.8 in 2016, and the same statistics show that more than half of first-time UK births are now to parents aged over 30.

And as well as (or in my case because of) starting later, we are also having fewer children: nearly half of households never have more than one. Only one in seven families has three or more.

In 1974, the year the birth control pill became available to unmarried women, the British birth rate fell below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman, where it has remained ever since. Nor is this phenomenon confined to Britain, where in 2018, the rate was 1.7 live births per woman. In 2017, the overall fertility rate across the EU was 1.59 babies per woman.

So did feminism kill the birth rate? Actually, no. Though antifeminists are often keen to blame dwindling fertility on the selfishness of modern women, it is more accurate to say that liberal individualism killed the birth rate.

The liberal individualism at the heart of modern civilisation, as elaborated perhaps most influentially by John Locke, views us as free, rational and equal to all other individuals. The liberal individual is autonomous, in command of his body, and in possession of natural rights including liberty. And for a long time, it was a boys’ club from which women were excluded, because we were instead expected to represent all the spare bits of human nature left out of the Lockean vision of the ideal person.

For as well as having the capacity for logical thought, humans are deeply irrational. We are not disembodied rational consciousnesses but evolved animals, with instincts developed over millions of years. And we are not atomised individuals but inherently social.

But these other aspects of human nature get palmed-off on women. As Simone de Beauvoir observed, men have historically defined women as ‘Other’ — that is, as whatever men did not wish to be. So as liberal individualism gained in dominance, those men who embraced it did so in large part by celebrating their own superior rationality, autonomy and command of their mortal flesh against a stereotype of women as irrational, childlike in their dependence and hopelessly addled by emotionality and the concerns of the body.

It is no coincidence that the modern democratic political project, which is premised on the capacity of each individual for reason and judgement, excluded women. Women’s allotted role was to serve as cultural dumping-ground for all the spare bits of human nature, such as animal instinct and strength of feeling, whose persistence compromised the arguments for enfranchisement. So it must have seemed only natural that the rights due to a rational Enlightenment subject should be denied to women.

Then, the Women’s Liberation movement turned liberal individualism from an instrument of women’s oppression into a central plank of our liberation. If the Lockean individual is autonomous, rational and possesses natural rights, why should women not also claim that rationality, enjoy that autonomy and exercise those rights?

Well, quite. But this is where we get to the birth rate. If, as feminists, we accept as a core premise the liberal-individualist conception of personhood, it follows that ‘liberation’ must mean liberation from dependence on others, and from our emotional and animal nature.

As I have argued elsewhere, having a baby cuts radically across the liberal conception of personhood. Motherhood tends to makes us more emotional and in need of social connection, even as we find ourselves suddenly inhabiting a ballooning, leaky body over which we only have the most marginal control. It is astonishing how much of feminism has a conflicted relationship to motherhood. But perhaps it should not be surprising, given that it is very difficult to be entirely free and also have dependent children.

In policy terms, it is clear that feminist liberation is understood as in tension with motherhood. In the 2019 election, every major political party competed to show they were thinking of women’s interests — mostly via subsidised childcare. While this may be of practical benefit to many, it is telling that family policy understands ‘choice’ to mean subsidising childcare, and offers little support for parents who choose to look after their own offspring.

As well as marginalising motherhood, conflating feminism with liberal individualism is increasingly producing mixed messages. As ever more of the great battles for equality are won, the feminist remit is getting wider and less coherent —including everything from environmentalism to Palestinian rights. The definition of ‘woman’ is receiving the same treatment. We are now expected to include males in the definition, if they say they are women, or be labelled reactionary bigots.

And none of this is doing anything to make space for the spare bits of human nature left out of the liberal ideal. Now that we are all rational, autonomous individuals, who carries the can for our embodied, social and emotional aspects? Today, the messy stuff either still gets dumped on women as a ‘second shift’ or outsourced to — you guessed it — poorer women. Small wonder we are putting off becoming that messy, leaky, animalistic and shamefully dependent Other.

Does it matter? There is much talk today of what we can and should do to ensure the survival of liberal democracy. Liberal democracy is the political expression of liberal individualism. But liberalism seems to be liberating women from willingness to give birth to new liberals, at least in sufficient numbers to keep liberal populations static across generations. Does it not follow from this that either liberalism must adapt, or else liberals — and their democracies — must, in the end, die out?

This should worry anyone who recognises (as we should) that women’s sex-specific interests still need advocacy. It may not have been feminism that killed the birth rate so much as the conflation of feminism with liberal individualism, but you can bet your bottom dollar it will be women who get the blame. The reaction of misogynists to the waning of fertility in Western liberal cultures is less likely to be a critique of the liberal conception of personhood, than a concerted effort to stuff women back into our pre-feminist role as hysterical, flesh-bound, dependent and fecund Other to the rational male subject.

How are we to resolve this? If we are not to watch our worldview expire or else invite the grandfather of all antifeminist backlashes, we need to address the heart of the problem: our impoverished understanding of ideal personhood. To put it another way, we need to make more space for emotion, social bonds and our evolved nature as embodied creatures. This goes not just for women, but for everyone. We need to allow love and the body back into the way we see human nature.

If we managed this, what then would women’s political interests look like? Or men’s, for that matter? Would we still see rationality and freedom as the only important values? How might we rethink our social, economic or ecological priorities? These are questions worth asking.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.


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3 years ago

Why so down on “outsourcing” childcare to “poorer women”? As long as a mother pays a fair wage for childcare, it is ok for her to pay someone else to help take care of a child. That person may very well be less wealthy than the mother, but if the mother is a career-oriented hardworking smart woman whose parents gave her a good start in life, then she will be more wealthy than most people. When more wealthy people pay less wealthy people a fair wage for childcare, that helps the less wealthy rather than hurts them. Also, regarding the “women” part of “poorer women”, not all childcare workers are women.
Regarding the doom and gloom about “keep[ing] liberal populations static across generations”, what’s wrong with relying on a partner to be the primary caregiver? Yes, this means that the mother will be less involved, but she can still have a relationship with the child.
You can view traditional marriage as a man supporting a woman financially so that she can rear children and take care of the home. Why can’t this work in the other direction? A woman can support a partner (e.g., the father) financially while that person rears the children and takes care of the home. Yes, the mother will probably need to take a bit of time off work to give birth, but that doesn’t need to be a long time if her partner is a full-time caregiver and it doesn’t need to damage the mother’s career.
Certainly there are barriers to this swap of traditional gender roles, but they aren’t insurmountable, and this kind of arrangement is happening more and more.

Last edited 3 years ago by fananam570
Pardel Lux
Pardel Lux
3 years ago

I guess we have too small a pregnancy rate because we do not test enough. More pregnancy tests would give us more pregnancies.
PS: But I do not want to get pregnant myself!