Conditions of Illusion: Agency, Feminism, and Cultural Representations of Infertility in Britain, c. 1960-80

Tracey Loughran


In her descent into madness, Anna Wulf, the heroine of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962), wonders at the tricks of fortune that govern reproductive experience, the contingency of sperm meeting egg and producing girls or boys: ‘How strange, having a baby is where women feel they are entering into some sort of inevitable destiny. But right in the heart of where we feel most bound, is something that’s just chance’.1 Lessing’s novel captures the lives of women in a society on the cusp of sexual revolution and the political upheaval of feminism. In the decades that followed, the rhetoric of control and choice replaced this earlier emphasis on fate and chance in discussions of women’s reproductive lives. The introduction of the oral contraceptive pill in 1961, and the legalization of abortion six years later, fed into a series of dramatic socioeconomic and demographic shifts that created flux in women’s sexual, reproductive, and familial lives. As women were better able to plan and space births, the birth rate plummeted, the average age of first pregnancy rose, and married women’s participation in the labour force increased.2 Rising rates of pre-marital sex, illegitimacy, and divorce led to fears of the terminal decline

The research on women’s magazines for this chapter was supported by a British Academy Small Grant. My thanks to Gayle Davis, Matthew Grant and Stephanie Ward for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this chapter.

T. Loughran (*)

Department of History, University of Essex, Colchester, United Kingdom e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

G. Davis, T. Loughran (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Infertility in History, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-52080-7_23

of the nuclear family.3 When the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) emerged out of this chaos at the end of the 1960s, opponents viewed this revolutionary new feminism as both symbolizing and propelling further the destruction of traditional social life.

The sense of living through a period of rapid change dominated contemporary social discourse, and perhaps no more so than in the constantly repeated belief that individuals now had ‘almost complete control over their behaviour in family planning’.4 Sociologists celebrated the ‘revolutionary enlargement of freedom for women’ and spoke in hushed tones of this ‘new situation in the entire history of mankind .5 Although commentators acknowledged that ethical, social or economic barriers might exist in practice, almost all believed that the pill and abortion made reproductive choice possible in theory. The WLM aimed to seize control of the ownership of the means of reproduction, revealing its assumption that ownership and means were there for the taking.6 Although there remained serious disparities in access to new contraceptive technology, belief in the ability to choose shaped women's capacity to imagine different futures, and so the illusion of control exerted real influence over their lives - even, and perhaps especially, if these futures did not work out exactly as planned.7

In the 1960s and 1970s, emphasis on choice and control meant that public debates, social policy, and political discourse often failed to acknowledge the existence of infertility, and this clearly precluded any serious proposals to tackle the problem. This all changed in 1978, when Louise Brown’s birth trained the media spotlight on infertility, simultaneously making the condition socially visible to an extent unparalleled in history and yoking it to issues surrounding the development and use of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs).8 This chapter unravels popular discourses of infertility in this exceptional moment: a time when infertile women, caught between the postwar revolutions in contraceptive and reproductive technology, found themselves ill-adapted to practice the fatalism of their mothers, bereft of the promise of technological solutions to involuntary childlessness, and increasingly unable to access the social solution of adoption.9 The pain of infertility must have been especially bitter for those who had grown to adulthood believing in their power to control their reproductive destinies: as one popular birth control guide mused, ‘It is very sad indeed when a couple who have been practising contraception throughout their sexual life together decide to have a baby only to find that they cannot conceive’.10

A comparison of approaches to infertility in mass-market women’s magazines and WLM publications illustrates some of the dilemmas infertile women faced in this period, but also some of the challenges infertility posed for feminism. Mass- market women's magazines validated the pain of infertile women, but did so partly by valorizing motherhood and promoting a narrow and oppressive conceptualization of femininity. The WLM, on the other hand, attempted to build a more broadly based conception of female ‘nature’, but neglected infertile women’s experiences. In the 1980s and 1990s, this vacuum was filled by influential feminist scholarship that implicitly or explicitly denied the agency and lived realities of infertile women, and conflated infertility with reproductive technology. Despite challenges from within the WLM, this scholarship set the terms of feminist debate on infertility for much of these decades, partly because the movement had not developed a coherent, experience-centred position on infertility before IVF changed the parameters of public debates on infertility.

These dilemmas reflect the unique problems that infertility raises for feminism. Infertility underscores ‘the biological limits of reproductive freedom for women’, and so both undermines the movement’s central tenets of ‘reproductive choice and control’, and complicates feminism’s efforts to simultaneously ‘celebrate women’s unique biologic capacities and reject this uniqueness as defining’.11 Partly as a result of these challenges, feminists have often been ‘ambivalent about supporting women who seek infertility treatments because it seems to lend implicit support to conventional gender roles and gendered stratification’.12 In prominent feminist scholarship of the immediate post-IVF decades, this ambivalence slid into virtual obliteration of the experiences of infertile women. They came to be represented ‘less as agents deciding their fates than as trapped among a host of cultural and specifically feminist contradictions concerning the benefits or liabilities of both technology and motherhood for women’.13

This scholarship ignored or refused to admit the emotions and capacity for action of flesh-and-blood women. Paradoxically, this stance arose out of some of the central theoretical ideas and practices of the WLM. In the Marxist- feminist analysis underpinning the British WLM, women were crippled by their own false consciousness as much as by external barriers to political, economic, and social freedom. The practice of consciousness-raising enabled women to recognize and so discard oppressive ideologies of femininity, but it also left those women perceived as straying from an ideal feminism vulnerable to accusations of unwitting patriarchal collusion. The WLM’s greatest weapon could be turned against deviants within the ranks.

Infertility resists accommodation within some of the defining lines of feminism: promotion of the right to choose, rejection of conventional ideologies of motherhood, and problematization of science and technology. Yet if infertility is the site where feminism’s conceptual fault lines intersect, it can also be used to explore feminism’s essence and its richest contradictions. My aim in this chapter is to expose the paradoxes of a feminism that can simultaneously enjoin women to speak and render them silent. I end by arguing that we can use the tools feminism provides to write against a tradition that erodes the agency and experience of infertile women. Although the concept of false consciousness could be used to invalidate the hopes and desires of infertile women, the practice of consciousness-raising reveals where we might locate and how we might write feminist histories of infertility.

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