Shrivelled Ovaries Cast Anew

The subject of women and fertility is once again in the headlines thanks to a provocative advertising campaign for pregnancy test manufacturer First Response. Not content with profiting from women’s desire to know they are pregnant at an ever earlier stage, the company is now seeking to encourage the population of Britain to consider their fertility. Particularly women who, in the words of Kate Garraway, fronting the campaign, may be more concerned about ‘careers and finances’ than getting pregnant. The spectre of the woman who ploughs her energies into career building, only to find herself single and/or struggling to conceive over the age of 40, haunts popular consciousness (not least in the pages of the Daily Mail).

While the image used in the campaign (Kate Garraway heavily made up to look 70 and pregnant) has been roundly, and rightly, criticised in the media, there is little analysis of the historical precedents for such concerns. When women began to campaign for basic rights such as access to education and professional employment in the mid-19th century, there was a groundswell of criticism and condemnation justified by contemporary understandings of female biology. Education of girls and young women would, according to critics of the time, impair their capacity to bear and raise children. Given the eugenic context of the time, such concerns were couched in the language of race and nation, particularly in light of the declining birth-rate amongst the more well-to-do classes. In March 1913,for example, an article in the British Medical Journal drew attention to the proportion of ‘more highly gifted women’ who were either unmarried or childless ‘to the loss of a great national asset in the future’ (BMJ, 29 March 1913, p. 672). The author speculated whether this ‘infertility’ was biologically based as a result of the greater strain on the nervous system from higher education, or chosen in line with a belief in emancipation and equality of the sexes.

Similarly, Dr Arabella Kenealy (1864 – 1938), a writer and former pioneering medical woman, echoed many earlier critics when she wrote in 1910 that feminism had resulted in young women who were ‘weedy, anaemic and neurotic’ with a distaste for ‘the natural functions of their sex’. Such women were either prone to infertility or gave birth to ‘constitutional bankrupts’ whom they were unable to nurse properly. Most pertinently, educated, professional women appeared ‘singularly old for their age’ (BMJ, 15 October 1910, p. 1172). It is probably no coincidence that Keneally also sought to convince women (‘as usurpers’) to give up their jobs in favour of demobilised soldiers in the aftermath of World War One (Feminism and Sex Extinction, 1920).

The underlying tenet of these related arguments was that by looking away from their ‘natural’ function of having children towards intellectual self-development, and social and financial autonomy, women risked their physical attractiveness and reproductive functioning, destabilising gender roles and society as a whole. While we may have moved away from explicitly eugenic language, current concerns about delayed motherhood and reproductive failure due to (implicitly misguided) focus on ‘career and finances’ simply cast many old arguments anew.

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