Recently, an article ran on CNN.com asking “Why are rich nations’ birthrates in free fall?”, by Elisabeth Badinter, a French feminist and author. The concerns she voices in her article straddle both conservative and progressive opinions about motherhood and childbirth, some of which Margaret Sanger also wrestled with in the early twentieth century. Balinter argues that wealthy nations like Germany and the United States should be concerned about their declining birth rates because it presents a threat to social stability, and that ultimately women should be having more children. Yet the fruits of feminism have presented a challenge by encouraging women to devote themselves to their studies or their careers, delaying motherhood or ignoring it altogether. Balinter notes with concern that the more educated women are, the more likely they are to not have children. Germany, one of the wealthiest countries in Europe, also has the lowest birthrate. Germany also has generous family policies, but Balinter suggests that considering the birth rate, family policies are not enough. In addition to extensive paid leave for parents, countries need to make the workplace a more hospitable place for mothers: high-quality child-care, flexible hours, and income equality are some of the incentives needed to help birthrates grow. “Tellingly, these are the rallying causes of traditional feminism, more pressing and relevant than ever. It turns out that profound feminist reform, int he workplace and in family policies, might just be what is needed to keep the birthrate from free fall.” It seems that women are increasingly choosing to be professionals first, and mothers second.
When women first began entering the work force in small numbers in the early twentieth century, the question at hand was not whether they could work at raise children at the same time, but whether they could work at all. Margaret Sanger understood that work was a step towards women’s independence, and understood that extra income was often the key to raising a family out of poverty. Birth control was central to these advancements because they allowed women to enter the work force and maintain manageable family sizes. To Sanger, women in the workforce was an an important step, and having fewer, healthier, children has essential to furthering this aspect of women’s liberation: “There is little doubt that the proportion of wage-earning mothers has greatly increased since 1910, and it is equally beyond question that an enormous number of poverty-stricken women are prevented by their excessive family burdens from seeking to earn money outside of the home.”
Yet the declining birth rate was already a grave concern in 1917, and even President Theodore Roosevelt felt compelled to speak out against it. Margaret Sanger carefully argued that while birth rates were dropping globally, birth control itself was not a threat. Wealthy families were already practicing contraceptive methods, she argued, while the poor families for whom she advocated had twice as many children, but infant mortality rates insured that approximately the same number of children made it into adulthood. One of the reasons being a working mother was so difficult was because the total lack of social welfare services that Badinter describes in her article. Sanger writes:
“The prospective mothers of this generation are compelled to divide their creative energies between child bearing and economic complexities. It has been estimated that last year seven and a half million women were engaged in industry in the United States, the majority of them in nerve-racking trades. Ten hours a day at a sewing machine or a telephone switchboard are not conductive to either a physical or mental receptiveness to maternity.”
In the period that Sanger was writing, the question was not between no children and some children, which is Badinter’s problem, but rather between two or three children or eight or nine. But as birthrates decline, women’s personal expectations and ambitions rise, leading them to chose to advance their own personal goals rather than raise a large family. This redefining of women’s roles is clearly still controversial, even among feminists. What do you think?