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Sexual Reformers and Working-Class Families

Sexual Reformers and Working-Class Families

In this paper, I will look at how working changes in the social construction of the role of the family in the interwar period influenced working-class women. I will do so by examining how sexual reformers viewed working-class families and their sexual habits. Next, I will examine how these changes in values suited to the needs of working-class women and influenced their sexual and reproductive dynamics. I determine that these changes ultimately proved to enable women, even though they were applied in an overbearing manner. Finally, I will discuss the double-standard and hypocrisies of attempts by middle-class sexual reformers to force their bourgeois values on classes they looked upon as inferior.

The First World War was severely disruptive from every standpoint, not least in the social sphere. An entire generation of young men had been killed and scarred both physically and mentally. Divorces also soared in post-war society throughout Europe. The entry of many women into the workforce to compensate had also proven highly destabilizing for traditional gender roles. This also meant that there were more widows and single women than before, and they were referred to at the time as “surplus women.” Not surprisingly these women were viewed with suspicion as potential adulterers and sex workers. These fears were of course greatly exaggerated but palpable nonetheless (McLaren, 1999 15).

Though there was no immediate revolution in sexual mores, the inter-war period did see some significant changes occur in that sphere. A new understanding of the importance of female pleasure in sex was accepted in Western society for the first time (56). There was also a new appreciation of romance in marriage. This change is captured in (although not necessarily caused by) the popular format of marriage manuals that appeared at this time and are covered extensively in McLaren’s book.

The attitude towards class differences amongst this new generation of “sex experts” is striking. They truly believed that middle-class couples and working-class couples had completely different sex lives. That this would divide human beings into separate sexual beings as far as these writers were concerned is not too surprising. The English class system is well known for its rigid stratification. This remained true in post-war Britain. The United States had less of a formal class system, but capitalism divided society into stratified classes in a very meaningful sense nonetheless.

Dr. Maria Stopes wrote a bestselling book on sexuality in marriage, titled Married Love. Stopes are notable for propagating a class gap in sexual ability. Interestingly, she seemed to believe that poorer men enjoyed greater sexual virility. Influenced by the impotence of her husband, she generalized her sour experienced to her entire socio-economic class. She estimated that roughly one-third of the upper and middle class married men were not virile. Meanwhile, she believed that working-class men did not suffer from premature ejaculation. In her estimate, middle-class females have similar problems by her account and are prone to frigidity. Therefore, she advised middle-class men to avoid “avoid alcohol, and hard brain work”, which she believed were stifling their sexuality. She pained an image of rampantly sexual working-class men who use their women unthinkingly for sexual purposes (51-56). They were also assumed to have less love and affection for their spouses (60). This presumably meant, they were to live more like working-class individuals and thus regain sexual virility. The parallels between these tropes and some popular racial ones are clear and are better left unstated.

Deep changes occurred in middle-class families during this period. They became smaller and more nuclear oriented. Instead of procreation and protection of elders, their purpose was now to foster love, domestic happiness, and memorable childhoods. As a result of this cultural change fertility rates plummeted. Although it was not yet socially acceptable to discuss the issue, the pursuit of this ideal required the popularization of effective methods of birth control (70). Indeed, birth control made this idyllic middle-class unit possible.

These changes were naturally accompanied by a renewed interest in birth control. The goal of limiting fertility was nothing new. In the nineteenth century, the Malthusian economic approach to population control was based on economic considerations. However, the new approach was based on new social constructions of the role of the family. Stopes and Sanger avoided the language of economics, and instead propagated the notion of domestic bliss to render birth control more palatable to the new social order. This approach was tailored to progressive middle-class families (65-69).

It was in this atmosphere, that the idea of family planning for poverty-stricken families first came to the fore. The first major advocate for the concept was Margaret Sanger. Her importance in the development of that field cannot be overstated. Indeed, the organizations she formed are today known as Planned Parenthood. As a socialist, she had a political interest in improving the lives of the lower classes. As she argued in her book Family Planning, the use of condoms and other forms of birth control would ameliorate poverty. For her pains, she was prosecuted by the federal government (65-66). In England, the resistance was less legal and more societal. Doctors, dispensaries, chemists, and local health officials made it clear that they did not see it as their duty to provide cheap devices for the working class. In response to this problem, Stopes opened the first family planning clinic for the working-class in London in 1921 (66).

The bourgeoisie model of domestic bliss was not easy for working-class families to assimilate into. The discreet purchase of birth control regularly was out of reach for most working-class families (67-68, 70). The family planning advocates attempted to corral working-class women to go to clinics designed for the middle class, where they seem to have felt quite uncomfortable. They also derided coitus interruptus, which was easily the most popular and readily available form of contraception (72). Most importantly, the attempt to hoist a middle-class model of domestic bliss, when working-class women needed to bring home money in any way possible, was completely unrealistic (79). Yet middle-class reformers increasingly looked upon the still large families of their “social inferiors” as a plight. This attitude led to greater government intrusion into parenting through the widespread use of invasive child-welfare practices (69). Reformers shared the prejudices of their entire class.

This is not to say that the early advocates of family planning were not well-meaning. They were. There is no doubt that working-class families were badly in need of a family planning mechanism. Women from the lower classes reported that they wished to have less sex and fewer children (69). Indeed, their efforts would help limit births in working-class families and thereby decrease poverty and increase the autonomy of working-class women (83).

As usual, poorer women also found themselves, victims of a double standard, in terms of abortion. Well-to-do women could always find a doctor willing to perform the procedure under the pretext of medical necessity. Therefore, their abortion experience was sterile and relatively safe. Meanwhile, working-class women often resorted to taking dangerous pills or hurling themselves down a flight of stairs. Practices which due to necessity, were considered legitimate at the time (77).

The distaste with which even progressives looked at the sexual and reproductive habits of the lower-classes reflects a deeper social malaise than mere sexual conservatism. Rather than target the social injustices which perpetuated the plight of the lower classes, their misfortune was blamed on their crude sexual appetites and inferior morals. After all, that is far easier than dealing with the guilt that capitalist exploitation of workers by their social superiors was at the root of poverty (83).

In conclusion, the changes in family structure in the inter-war period deeply influenced and ultimately enable working-class women to gain more control over their bodies and live more fulfilling lives. However, the translation of those values into working-class lives was a painful process. Sexual reformers looked down at working-class families as morally inept and offered them solutions better suited to middle-class families. The changes in family structure improved the lives of working-class women significantly in the long run. However, these reforms were accompanied by the bitter taste of paternalism.

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