Birth Control, Sex and Marriage in Britain, 1918-1960

Birth Control, Sex and Marriage in Britain, 1918-1960

Birth Control, Sex and Marriage in Britain, 1918-1960

Birth Control, Sex and Marriage in Britain, 1918-1960


The first half of the twentieth century witnessed a revolution in contraceptive behaviour as the large Victorian family disappeared. This book offers a new perspective on the gender relations, sexual attitudes, and contraceptive practices that accompanied the emergence of the smaller family in modern Britain. Kate Fisher draws on a range of first-hand evidence, including over 190 oral history interviews, in which individuals born between 1900 and 1930 described their marriages and sexual relationships. By using individual testimony she challenges many of the key conditions that have long been envisaged by demographic and historical scholars as necessary for any significant reduction in average family size to take place. Dr Fisher demonstrates that a massive expansion in birth control took place in a society in which sexual ignorance was widespread; that effective family limitation was achieved without the mass adoption of new contraceptive technologies; that traditional methods, such as withdrawal, absitinence, and abortion were often seen as preferable to modern appliances, such as condoms and caps; that communication between spouses was not key to the systematic adoption of contraception; and, above all, that women were not necessarily the driving force behind the attempt to avoid pregnancy. Women frequently avoided involvement in family planning decisions and practices, whereas the vast majority of men in Britain from the interwar period onward viewed the regular use of birth control as a masculine duty and obligation. By allowing this generation to speak for themselves, Kate Fisher produces a richer understanding of the often startling social atttitudes and complex conjugal dynamics that lay behind the vast changes in contraceptive behavior and family size in the twentieth century.


Well some people have big families and that generation didn't seem to have
big families—my generation—none of my friends had big families—I mean,
my sister only had two, I only had two, my other sister had 'bout four or five
girls, but not big families, you know … just one of them things, you know,
just that was it—careful I suppose—we never used nothing, no … Still he
was a pretty good chap. I think him being brought up in big family, and me in
big family it's just how it worked out. Funny though, I've thought about that
myself, you know, my sister only had two and I only had two and my brothers
had about three.

From the end of the nineteenth century marital contraceptive practice changed dramatically. The first half of the twentieth century saw increased numbers of married couples using birth control with ever greater consistency, and a concomitant sharp and sustained decline in average family size, which reached its nadir in Britain during the 1930s. The rapid decrease in marital fertility across most of Europe and North America from the end of the nineteenth century onwards is frequently termed 'the fertility decline'. Birth rates rose during and after the Second World War, but the extremely large families of the Victorian period did not return.

The massive increase in the use of birth control and the sharp and sustained decline in average family size has long been subject to academic investigation. Demographers and demographic historians have produced a large body of literature attempting to explain this major transformation in the European population. More recently, the development of social history, and the interest of historians in family, gender, and sexuality, have provoked a new focus on the increased availability of contraception, in changes in family forms, and in developments in sexual behaviour.

The changes in contraceptive behaviour during the course of the twentieth century are seen as revolutionary: 'This change in reproductive behaviour is undoubtedly the most dramatic in human history and merits the designation

Hilda, bc3ox#5. All names are pseudonyms.

This literature is discussed in e.g. van de Kaa, 'Anchored Narratives'; Szreter, Fertility, Class and Gender, 7–65; Greenhalgh, 'The Social Construction of Population Science'; and Friedlander, Okun, and Segal, 'The Demographic Transition Then and Now'.

See e.g. Banks, Prosperity and Parenthood; Brookes, Abortion in England 1900–1967; Davey, 'Birth Control in Britain during the Inter-War Years'; Gittins, Fair Sex; Ittman, Work, Gender and Family in Victorian England; McLaren, A History of Contraception; Porter and Hall, The Facts of Life; W Seccombe, Weathering the Storm; Weeks, Sex, Politics and Society.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.