Artificial Insemination, Marriage, and the Media

The MacLennan case took place at a unique moment in twentieth-century history, when fears about the future of marriage and the family intersected with the growth of ‘permissiveness’, and when the popular press and other media outlets had the power, reach, and intent to influence social attitudes. Sales of the national daily press in Britain were at an unmatched high in the 1950s. By 1950, the national dailies had a combined daily circulation of 16.6 million, with Sunday papers selling 30 million copies per week.5 The Daily Mirror and the Daily Express accounted for the majority of these sales.6 By 1950, the Mirror boasted a circulation of 4.5 million and was the most popular daily paper.7 The Express had a circulation of over 4 million by 1957.8 The editors at both newspapers believed that ‘the popular press had an ethical mandate for change’, and pursued policies which attempted to ‘eliminate the remnants of repressive Victorian morality’.9 At this time, newspapers were increasingly in competition with television and radio. Television viewership exploded in the 1950s.10 Only 4% of the adult population owned a television set in 1950, yet by 1955 this had climbed to 40%, and by 1960 the proportion had exploded to include 80% of the adult population.11 The growing public discourse around AID in the 1950s must be viewed in the context of changes in the media landscape, and especially competition in the media marketplace.12 As Frank Mort has argued, the growth of television consumption directly influenced the sexual content of the popular newspapers, placing greater pressure on editors to generate provocative reporting.13

In their mission to be socially progressive while also presenting the sunny side of life, the Mirror and Express presented AID as a positive solution to a medical problem, which offered the promise of greater marital satisfaction rather than threatening the foundation of the family. This approach to AID was significant because newspapers did far more than report on contemporary events. The press was capable of shaping what counted as significant news and, as a result, the attitudes of its readers.14 As Stephen Vella states, newspapers are not ‘neutral conduits of information, but rather gatekeepers and filterers of ideas’.15 Popular newspapers have often been viewed with suspicion as commercial enterprises, with ‘predictable, superficial, and socially conservative’ content which privileges entertainment, marginalizes radicalism, and often reinforces stereotypes and supports the status quo.16 Yet popular newspapers are particularly valuable for understanding social attitudes towards sexual issues. As the dissemination of sexual knowledge remained limited in other forums in the 1950s, most people relied on informal sources of information. In this context, as Adrian Bingham shows, ‘newspapers made a significant contribution to attitudes about sex and sexuality’.17 Media responses to the MacLennan divorce case therefore present a fascinating window into how a controversial issue, touching on both sex and marriage, was presented to millions of British people in the late 1950s.

On the one hand, then, the media’s promotion of more tolerant attitudes towards AID can be interpreted as part of the trend towards increased ‘permissiveness’ on sexual and moral issues in the late 1950s. In recent years, many historians have located the origins of important social and cultural changes, which eventually led the liberal reform of laws on abortion, homosexuality, and divorce in the late 1960s, in the 1940s and 1950s.18 As Frank Mort has put it, ‘the permissive society was neither a revolution in English social life nor a radical break with the sexual cultures that preceded it; rather it was an extremely uneven acceleration of shifts that had a much longer period of incuba- tion’.19 Likewise, Adrian Bingham’s research on newspapers argues that the most significant shifts in reporting on sex took place in the late 1940s and 1950s, not the 1960s.20 He attributes an important role to popular newspapers here, because they ‘challenged traditional beliefs and made an important contribution to the climate of reform that produced the legislative changes of the late 1960s’.21 We might, then, perhaps view the popular media’s portrayal of artificial insemination within the context of the longer-term transition to the ‘permissive society’.

On the other hand, there were more conservative tendencies at work, which influenced both the intensity and the nature of anxiety around AID. There was much concern about the security of the family in the 1950s, which manifested in moral panics over adultery and homosexuality, unease about the growing numbers of married women entering the workforce, and disquiet at increasing divorce and illegitimacy rates.22 Concerns about adultery and divorce were particularly pertinent to debates on AID. The number of divorce petitions grew exponentially immediately after the Second World War and remained high throughout the 1950s, never again returning to the prewar rates.23 With a particularly high number of men filing suits after the war, more attention was paid to wifely infidelity.24 Throughout the 1950s, adultery remained the easiest way to achieve divorce, but producing proof was often difficult and evidence was often manufactured. As Claire Langhamer argues, whether or not the actual incidence of adultery was increasing over the period, the public believed that extramarital affairs were becoming more


The growing incidence of divorce and the perceived rise in adultery led to a media preoccupation with marriage in the postwar period. For example, between 1946 and 1958, Gallup conducted 16 polls in Britain on marriage and divorce. In comparison, in the five years on either side of that period (1940-45; 1959-64), only one poll on these topics was conducted.26 Many of these polls were triggered, no doubt, by the public profile of the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce (1951-56). As part of this renewed attention to marriage, the media became active in constructing acceptable social boundaries for marital relationships. One way in which this was achieved was through quizzes, which became a common addition to the popular newspapers in the postwar period. Between 1955 and 1957, a number of marital quizzes appeared in the Daily Mirror offering to tell readers if they were in a ‘happy marriage’ and whether they were a good spouse, including ‘How Do You Rate as a Mate?’, ‘Would You Marry Your Wife Again?’, ‘How Do You Treat Your Wife?’, and ‘Have You Got That Ten-Year Itch?’. The use of quizzes in the postwar period signals new attempts ‘to more explicitly and boldly create norms and ideals amongst readers’.27 In such ways, newspapers reinforced the ideal of companionate marriage and relative gender equality, while at the same time insisting on the importance of upholding some traditional gender roles in the home. Marital relationships were under greater scrutiny, and their success seemed less certain. The perception that the traditional family unit was under threat played as important a role as ‘permissiveness’ in shaping media responses to AID.

By presenting a close analysis of the media’s role in articulating narratives around artificial insemination, this chapter aims to broaden the scope of historical research on fertility and reproductive medicine in the 1950s, and to place this research within the context of wider historical narratives around sex and marriage. Histories of reproduction have neglected infertility, instead focusing on birth control. Likewise, with the exception of recent research by Angus McLaren and Gayle Davis, histories of infertility and reproductive technologies have devoted relatively little attention to artificial insemination.28 When discussed in the existing historiography, the MacLennan case has been used as a marker for bringing greater public attention to artificial insemination and in pushing the Government to create a Departmental Committee to investigate the practice. However, the immediate media response to the divorce case has been overlooked. This legal case opened the floodgates for debate about the implications of AID and widened an educative discussion about infertility, sex, and reproductive health which was in large part propagated by the press. This chapter therefore contributes to histories of infertility and artificial insemination, builds on recent research on the role of newspapers in creating and reflecting sexual knowledge, and demonstrates the importance of attitudes to marriage and the family in determining responses to reproductive technologies.29

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