Last week TV Presenter Kirsty Allsop caused controversy  by suggesting that young women should have a baby before going to university. Read her original article in the Telegraph newspaper and explore some related resources chosen by staff in the LSE Library to make up your own mind.

What do historical sources tell us?

The debate over whether women should have children or a career, and the tension between the two, is not new.

Here are a selection of 20th Century viewpoints from LSE Library sources:

  • We have recently acquired the  American Vogue magazine archive. Although aimed at the social elite, it has some interesting articles that offer insight into attitudes. As early as 1895 in an article entitled- The maternal instinct in woman.  The author discussed concerns that women were turning away from their traditional roles.“To his consternation man sees a large and ever growing number of women entering the professions and abjuring or deferring matrimony. By the time they are 30 and 35 they are reaping in greater or less degree the reward of their efforts. Intelligent, progressive interested in their work, intercourse with them fails to reveal any trace of heart hunger for children”  (1895, May 16. Vogue, 5, 310).Although one should also note that  earlier in the same piece it had also been acknowledged that ‘even today it is of great advantage to a woman to be a mrs’.
  • Many of the articles in Vogue expressed support for the new working role. In an editorial from 1897 entitled ‘The Spinster’. The author dismissed the charge that woman college professors were ‘subversive‘of the family and therefore ‘undesirable examples‘ to college students by suggesting that:

” A chair of wifehood and motherhood might be endowed. To ensure the success of the department the professor  should be a woman who was happy in both these relations, which proviso would of course make a choice difficult.” (1897, Sep 09. Vogue, 10, 162)

  • Tensions between the two roles of working woman and mother and wife remained throughout the 20th Century. In 1932. A Career Girl was described as a ‘vamp and an adventuress‘ . (1932, Jun 15. Vogue, 79, 35-35) and references continued to be made to successful women having both beauty and brains. (1936, Jun 01. Vogue, 87, 84-84, 85).
  • However, attitudes were changing. By 1951 in The revolution of the women the author was stating:

“Whereas thirty years ago the girl of social conscience would almost apologise for having a baby , the same girl now, more often than not, will be anxiously inquiring how many babies she can afford, and if it is possible for her to do her duty by them and her husband while keeping her job” . (Vogue, 117, 98-98, 99, 100, 149)

  • Yet at the same time, while becoming more socially acceptable, it was difficult for women to balance working and family roles. In 1974 an article entitled Hassle Free Work for Women asked ‘Someday women with families may hold jobs without shredded loyalties,  why not now?’  (1974, Mar 01. Vogue, 163, 40-40, 44. ) and in 1978 Vogue offered advice for readers in the article  Must I be superwoman to combine work with motherhood?“.
  • Vogue also charted the trend for women to delay motherhood. in 1985 it asked.

Suddenly women who’ve spent years building careers, claiming to have no interest in motherhood, are obsessed with having children. Are they driven by biological imperative? Psychological need? The quest for a new status symbol? What is this raging infatuation, this baby fever?’  (1985, Aug 01, Vogue, 175, 325-325, 326, 387).

Perhaps now the trend may be to younger motherhood again?

  • For a different viewpoint,  try searching the Daily Mail historical archive which features many articles aimed at middle-class readers. In  December 1909 it wrote about the advancing age of marriage as only 40,000 girls under the age of 21 became brides. It also noted the trend from the 1980s onwards for late motherhood with articles such as How old is the perfect mother? from 1995 and Thirtysomething, the new age of motherhood from 1997.
  • Another good source to explore is the Mass Observation Archive which has diary entries and social surveys from the 1930s-1940s. A quick search revealed an interesting survey entitled the Reluctant Stork about Britain’s Birthrate which considers reasons for delaying motherhood and reducing family size. There are also diary entries and surveys on sexual relationship and marriage.

Statistical Data on  motherhood and age

Finding  further relevant books/ articles on this topic