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

Martin Evans | Published in History Today
Birth Control, Sex, and Marriage in Britain 1918-1960
Kate Fisher
Yale University Oxford University Press
304pp £50 ISBN0199267361
This is a brave and ambitious book which breaks new ground. Within it Kate Fisher has successfully overturned much of the received wisdom on the period, above all through her extremely detailed use of oral history. Interviewing 193 people born between 1899 and 1931 from South Wales, Oxford, Hertfordshire and Blackburn she has produced an intimate picture of marital contraceptive practices. Whereas before we understood everything from the perspective of policy, now we can see how this policy impacted on ordinary lives. We can glimpse the ways in which individuals negotiated and maintained the small family unit that had become the norm by the 1920s and 1930s.
As such we see why inter­views are such a vital source for the contemporary historians. Of course, like every document they must be treated with care, but even so they give unique insights into emotions, feelings and personal choices. They remind us that people, with their rich complexity and individuality, are at the centre of the historical process.

How has Fisher provided fresh perspectives? She is the first to consider the subject in a systematic way. In the past other oral histories – one thinks of Elizabeth Robert’s book A Woman’s Place on working-class women in Barrow, Lancaster and Preston – have treated it as marginal. Indeed even Steve Humphries A Secret World of Sex, said little about contra­ception, particularly that practised in marriage. Through interviews she has explored not only details about sexual practices, sexuality and the process of decision-making, but also attitudes or roles undertaken in negotiating contraceptive practice. In doing so she has revealed the tricky relation­ship between cultural codes, established norms and lived experience.
Specifically her material has highlighted the previously neglected role of men. Fisher underlines that it was men who took the initiative for contraception during the first half of the twentieth century. For those marrying in the 1930s and 1940s, birth control was the responsibility of men. This in turn challenges our subsequent understanding of the ‘sexual revolution’ during the 1960s. The role played by women in determining contraceptive strategy was a radical break. It did not represent the culmination of a process begun over the previous half century. This development was a new beginning.
In her conclusion she argues that we now require a further book on the second half of the twentieth century. We need another oral history study that will explain how the male dominated culture of contraception was trans­formed.
And what is true for the history of birth control is true for history in general. Only by exploring the small scale and the detail of people’s lives can we hope to understand the larger picture of demographic and social change.
  • Martin Evans is the co-author of France 1815-2003: Modern History for Modern Languages (OUP, 2004).
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