None of us likes to feel out of control. In fact, as a little bit of a control freak, it is the thing I fear the most. Being female, I’m also well aware that being in control of your life means being in control of your body. Of course, it’s only relatively recently that this has become a possibility, both technically, through modern day contraceptives, and legally, through the powers that be permitting access. Figures such as Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger, now celebrated for their pioneering work, were once viewed with suspicion and even faced the wrath of the law. The battle for women’s right to control their own bodies has certainly not been easy, and it is still very much ongoing. Unfortunately, and as we have seen with recent developments in the USA, it cannot be taken for granted.
Comparing our lives today with those of our female ancestors shows just what is at stake. When I was a child, my grandmother used to tell me stories about her own grandmother who, like me, was small, slight, had long hair and was good with numbers. As it turns out, whilst her mental arithmetic might have been top of the class, she wasn’t so astute when it came to choosing a husband. You could say that the man she married loved drink quite a lot more than he loved his family. Whilst my grandmother didn’t call it domestic violence, I got the distinct impression that the family were treated rather badly as a result of the liquor. My great, great grandmother gave birth to more than ten children, including at least six boys, and, so the story goes, she would regularly send two of them to wait outside of the local pub to beg their father for money before he spent it all at the next pub. I’ve never been sure whether he realised that these urchins were his own kids – by all reports, though, it wouldn’t surprise me if not.
As it turns out, and after years of abuse, my great, great grandmother finally got her own back: when her husband tried to escape wartime conscription on the basis of what he claimed was a disability, she secretly told the military men that they should wait for him outside of the pub the next evening. Needless to say that he didn’t remember to limp in the same way after an evening of alcohol. She was finally free, in one way at least.
Seeing your own children go without must be about the most heartbreaking feeling any mother could face. And, without the benefit of modern day contraception, women like my great, great grandmother must have felt entirely out of control. Every time she missed a period she must have realised that there would soon be an extra mouth to feed, meaning spreading her earnings ever more thinly and reducing portion sizes for existing children.
We all have stories like these, and we all know what a difference the welfare state could have made. Child allowances, paid to the mother, free healthcare and maternity benefits could have, I’m sure, transformed her life along with many others, but, alas, she was born too early in history to reap the benefits. It’s easy to see why when we think about poverty reduction, the Left jumps to welfare. What such personal stories also reveal, however, is that there is another cause of poverty. In the case of my great, great grandmother, it’s easy to see that freedom to control her own fertility would have transformed her life by just as much as the welfare state ever could. Feeding, clothing and nurturing two, three or even four children instead of ten or more would have made an immeasurable difference to the family’s standard of living.
Giving women the power to control their own fertility is not just about rights for women, it is also about giving families what they need to keep the wolf from the door, affecting the lives of the boys and girls of the next generation. This is something that any Republican or Conservative, particularly those who would like to cut back the state, should welcome. With women lacking control over their wombs, it’s not that surprising that the human race was, until recently, condemned to a life of dearth and deprivation. Whilst we tend to assume that poverty reduction has been a result of, depending on whether you are Right or Left leaning, capitalism or the welfare state, from the point of view of women, control over their bodies must surely come towards the top of the list.
Reducing poverty is all too often seen as being about supporting people once they find themselves in a difficult situation, such as once a young woman has become a single mother scratching out a living for her and her kids. The alternative is to empower young women – to give them what they need to take charge of their lives, including by effectively managing their own fertility. Doing so can help prevent whole families from falling into poverty in the first place. It is by far the cheaper option, but also the most effective. Women need to be in control of their reproduction, before their reproduction takes control of them. Theirs and their family’s wellbeing fundamentally depends upon it.
Now you might think that in the modern world this point is rather old hat – that “family planning” (or, dare I say it, “planned parenthood”) is obvious for the modern woman; that there is nothing more that we can or should do, and that we have already gone as far as we can in reducing poverty through this particular means. In her attack on my recent article titled “why we don’t need a male suffrage movement”, Laura Perrins of Conservative Woman called my suggestion that women are underestimating the risks of sex and unexpectedly falling into the trap of single parenthood “pretty patronizing”. To be fair, we have been pleasantly surprised by the reduction in teenage pregnancies over the course of the last decade, which might have given the impression that there really isn’t much more that can be achieved. However, as Isabel Sawhill has argued in her book Generation Unbound, we simply cannot afford to rest on our laurels and assume that all is well. The “problem” of teen mums has been replaced by another problem, one concerning women in their twenties – and not only those at the bottom but increasingly the middle class too.
In an age in which sex and marriage have been decoupled, family planning is needed now more than ever. Whilst the age of first sexual intercourse has been falling, the age of marriage has been going up. The difference between the timing of the two “activities” is stark: late teens versus early thirties. The average age of first marriage for women in the UK is now around 30. The gap between sex and marriage has widened from seven years to fourteen years.
With this widening gap, it is now very easy for young women to drift into circumstances which they might not have, with hindsight, ideally chosen. Cohabitation and the ease of having children before marriage offer much more freedom than in the past, but they also mean greater risks. A young woman can end up sleep-walking into life as a single mum, with more children than she might have ideally wanted, and possibly to more than one father. Even when women feel they are taking action to avoid pregnancy, the risks really are much greater than they might think. The facts are shocking: according to Sawhill, if a woman uses only the pill as contraceptive protection, after five years she faces a 38% chance of getting pregnant. Use only the condom and the risk is a frightening 63%. Whilst the risk of any one encounter is low, aggregated over five years of sexual activity, it soon mounts up.
It is not surprising that accidents happen – that so many births to young unmarried women do not result from planned pregnancies. And, when they do, intentions and responses are, of course, honorable. In the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Survey, carried out in the USA, which has been tracing the lives of children born in 1998, Sawhill notes that whilst most of the unmarried parents “hoped to marry each other one day”, two-thirds had split up by the time the child was five. Furthermore, the majority of the mothers (and indeed fathers) went on to have children with other people, leading to what has been termed the family merry-go-round.
The consequences are serious, particularly for the children involved. Single parents (most of whom are mothers) face a much higher risk of poverty, face the stress of juggling children with work, all too often with little day-to-day practical help from the father (who is increasingly likely to have gone on to have kids with another woman), and their children have a significantly lower chance of doing well in their own lives, affecting them, their own children and the economy. An unmarried mother is left highly exposed: in terms of relationship stability, she is at increased risk compared with being married, and, if the relationship does end, the chances are that, as a single parent, she will experience poverty. The facts are there: 60% of single parents in the UK do.
Historically, economists have tended to assume that we can each freely make choices and that we carefully think about every decision. That should be no different when it comes to having children. In fact, given the impact on our lives, it should be even more the case than with choosing a car or what to have for dinner. However, according to US data, amongst young unmarried women, 60% of births are the result of unplanned pregnancies. The rates are highest amongst the poorest groups. One study found that the proportion of planned births is as low as 12% in certain regions. There are a lot of children out there that were not intended.
Here in the UK, things are not yet as worrying. But, if our habit of copying the US is anything to go by, we need to start facing up to the facts right now, before it is too late. We need to stop blindly assuming that “family planning” can be taken for granted. For young women (those in the 20-24 age group), the proportion of all pregnancies that are planned is less than half, standing at around 40%. This means that the majority were either unplanned or fall into the mysterious category of “ambivalence”. For women aged 16-19, the situation is even more worrying, as only 12% of pregnancies are planned. It is hard to ignore the fact that a lot of children are being born to young women without the advance planning that is required to ensure financial means are available. Given the costs of raising children, which exceed £200,000 per child in modern money, each addition to the family makes a big difference, never mind an extra two, three, four or more children. Each unplanned pregnancy is literally like finding that you have twenty small cars on your door step and that you somehow need to find the means to pay for them over the next twenty years. If you are not in a committed long-term relationship, that is a cost that can be very difficult to cope with alone.
In our “anything” goes society, the social shame that used to face single parents, unmarried cohabiting couples and same sex relationships has largely disappeared. We are all much freer to live our lives as we choose. Having more choice – having more paths open to you in life – means, however, that you need to think ahead and plan your life. If there is no set path to follow of the “get a job, get married, have two kids” kind, then you need to be much more active in terms of making the choices that will get you to where you want to be in the long term. If they are to thrive and avoid poverty, young women need a plan – for their own sake and for the sake of their kids.
To tackle poverty, we need to face up to the facts. It doesn’t mean demonising women, it means making sure that they are given the support they need to fully take charge of their lives. Girls need to be taught that having a good standard of living means planning ahead, and, with the higher age of marriage combined with lower age of sexual activity, much more than was ever the case in the past. Sex education needs to be about much more than how to avoid pregnancy, it needs to explain why doing so matters in terms of how the rest of your life will pan out. Understanding the consequences is extremely powerful. For girls in previous generations, many of whom will have grown up in large families and witnessed the poverty to which this can easily lead, this might have been obvious. A teacher would not have needed to spell it out. But for the current generation, it may be much less obvious.
In practical terms, young women need to be able to access the information needed about how their life chances hang delicately upon their fertility choices, to be supported in terms of body confidence and to stand up to the sexualisation of female bodies, to see that a woman’s value is not simply in sex. It is something that could spell the difference between a life in poverty and a much more comfortable existence. Unfortunately, this is something that not everyone has yet bought into. After I recently pointed out that feminists need to do more to help poorer women in society with all of this in mind, the response of Conservative Woman was that “it is feminism that has caused so much of the damage to poor women in the first place” and that feminists therefore “need to clear off and leave us to clean up the mess”.
Never mind capitalism or the welfare state, there is no better tool to reduce poverty than a dose of modern day girl power. Modern day feminism is about empowering women, allowing them to take control of their own bodies and their own lives, and surely no one should take issue with that. If we fail to open our eyes to the situation facing young women in this country, the state will continue to pay the price in terms of welfare – as will society and the economy.