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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: November 2018

Introduction to Part IV

from Part IV - Modern Reproduction


In the age of capital and empire between 1848 and 1939, the new framework – ‘reproduction’ as distinct from ‘generation’ – became influential against a background of huge demographic change. By 1901 many intellectuals agreed with the sciencefiction writer H. G. Wells that ‘the main mass of the business of human life centres about reproduction’. He was more isolated in his view that ‘perhaps half the population of the world, in every generation, should be restrained from or tempted to evade reproduction’, but even this was discussed. As European birth-rates fell, nation-states competed to raise the largest populations of the fittest race and worried about depopulation in their colonial possessions. Modern party politics was invented and feminist movements were founded. The Russian Revolution created a socialist alternative, temporarily including formal equality for women and legal abortion, while fascists grounded nationalism in fantasies of race. Procreation was contested across the globe, but on one thing the combatants agreed: the way a society organized reproduction was essential to making it modern. Part IV takes a fresh look at what that meant.

The major demographic facts of modern history, the large fertility declines in those industrializing nations that experienced rapid, urbanizing economic growth, were apparent to contemporaries by the late nineteenth century. (Mortality began to decline earlier, and fertility in France had been falling since the eighteenth century.) The neo-Malthusians can take some credit; those radicals sought to increase happiness and avoid Malthus's gloomy predictions by advocating what he had rejected as ‘improper arts’. Termed ‘contraception’ from the late nineteenth century, in the early twentieth the American campaigner Margaret Sanger called it ‘birth control’. Among social movements that worked to separate sex from reproduction – others defended homosexuality – the neo-Malthusians did much to spread knowledge of the possibilities, but had a less direct role in reducing fertility (Lesley A. Hall, ‘Movements to Separate Sex and Reproduction’, Chapter 29). Keeping their families smaller, couples now sustained a lively trade in contraceptive devices, but most did not choose the female barrier methods, the cervical caps and diaphragms, that the birth controllers preferred.