- Fertility, Class, and Gender in Britain, 1860–1940
Simon Szreter, lecturer in history at the University of Cambridge, where he has been associated with the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, has published several important articles on demographic issues, including studies of mortality and public health. In Fertility, Class, and Gender in Britain, 1860–1940 he focuses on the study of the British fertility decline, based primarily on a very detailed examination of the Fertility of Marriage Report in the 1911 Census. His major findings are that “the processes of change, far from being a unitary and unifying event, should be understood as socially divisive” (p. 533), a “sequence of contingent phases,” not a “single, smooth ‘transition’” (p. 533), and also that the understanding of the end of the process may not be useful when trying to determine its origins. In brief, there were “multiple fertility declines” (p. 534).
While this conclusion may not seem striking, Szreter presents a wealth of theoretical and empirical information concerning fertility change, making this an important work for historians and demographers. Part 1 is a thorough analysis of ideas explaining the fertility decline in the interwar and post-World War II periods, by academics as well as public policymakers, indicating the importance given to economic and social factors, including modernization. In Part 2, Szreter discusses the background to, and nature of, work on the 1911 Census, including its initial belief in what he calls “the professional model of social classes” (p. 4.) Important here is the analysis of the preconceptions of the General Register Office when designing occupational and fertility measures. The concept of five grades of occupational skill levels was introduced by the superintendent of statistics, T. H. C. Stevenson, to test arguments relating skills and fertility, pointing to “racial decline” and “urban degeneration” (p. 99). The chapters on the debates over occupational classification, class, and public action are by themselves a separate book on the history of social sciences, although, curiously, little is said about the similar problems confronting the U.S. Census at the same time.
In Part 3, Szreter presents a detailed statistical analysis of fertility patterns based on the 1911 Census, showing differences in numbers of children born, by occupation of father as well as by age at marriage of mother, and duration of marriage. While the fertility averages for the five occupational classes conform to the “professional model,” the intraclass variations are sufficiently large to limit any predictive relation between occupation and level of fertility. In the general pattern of fertility decline, the importance of spacing in the early years of marriage and of delays in marriage are argued for. Both, Szreter argues, suggest the importance of “attempted abstinence” (p. 573), a point buttressed by his long discussions indicating that the use of other means of contraception, as well as abortion, was limited. These findings are placed in context in Part 4, with the claim that fertility declines were due to “a change in the perceived relative costs of childrearing” (p. 445), which includes shifting roles and norms and perceptions of [End Page 128] childrearing, parenthood, and social identities, leading to discussions of “the linguistic basis of class relations” (p. 553) and the recent role of feminist ideology. While the arguments presented may not always be fully convincing on the basis of the available evidence, they are always stimulating, thought-provoking, and carefully made.
This book is a major work of scholarship that will be important to all concerned with demographic patterns and the manner in which they have been interpreted in the past and present. Its statistical data are mainly from the 1911 Report, but this analysis is used to center a discussion that covers a considerably longer period of time. In scope and coverage it goes beyond other studies of recent British fertility, and it will be necessary reading not only for those concerned with British fertility, but also for those interested in...