Feminism, Femininity, and (In)Fertility: Popular Discourses on Gender and Reproduction in the 1970s Britain and Beyond


Tracey Loughran
(Cardiff University)

During the 1970s, second wave feminists argued that control of reproduction was essential to women’s liberation. In practice, however, feminist assertions of ‘the right to choose’ usually focussed on the right not to have children. The feminist press rarely engaged with infertility in the 1970s. Individual feminists reported uncomprehending, unsympathetic, or hostile reactions from within the women’s movement to their attempts to conceive. Infertile feminists were faced with difficult political, as well as medical and emotional, choices. This paper compares discussions of infertility in the feminist press, novels, and the women’s health movement with coverage in women’s magazines and popular medical books aimed at a lay audience. It explores the extent to which these publications enabled individual women to articulate their experiences of infertility, and the contexts of these articulations. Of particular importance are the perceived role of fertility in self-fashioning, feminine, and feminist identity; portrayals of reproductive technology and medical scientists; and the influence of different forms of communication (self-help books, feminist magazines, and popular medical texts) on perceptions of infertility. Although women’s magazines and popular medical texts provided more coverage of infertility, and were more sympathetic to the plight of infertile women, within these forums infertility was a matter for ‘experts’ and this diminished female agency. During the 1970s, the feminist press was more ambivalent or hostile in its sparse coverage of infertility, but infertile feminist women were able to harness the underlying principles of the women’s health movement to create alternative feminist discourses of infertility. The paper will conclude with an exploration of how the media storm around in vitro fertilisation and the development of feminist analysis of reproductive technologies as a form of patriarchal and westernised power altered discourses of infertility within and outside the feminist movement.

Thursday, 29th January 2015, 12.45 pm – 2.00 pm
Venue: Jerry Morris B, Tavistock Place