Under this heading there are two related topics which have been opened up by feminists. These are the experience of childbirth, especially of maternity care in hospital, and the wider topics of motherhood, fatherhood, and of reproductive ideologies. Ann Oakley (1979) followed her pioneering study on housework with a parallel project on a small number of London women having their first baby. That project made ‘becoming a mother’ sociologically strange, and encouraged other subsequent studies of becoming a parent. A series of studies of women’s passage to motherhood (such as Bailey, 1999; Oakley, 1979; Phoenix et al., 1991) has confirmed the persistence of what Joan Busfield (1974) called the dominant British reproductive ideology. There is a powerful set of beliefs that motherhood is fulfilling for women, and that married couples who do not become parents are ‘selfish’. Bailey (1999) interviewed 30 women in Bristol about to have their first baby. They were all white and their average age was 32. These women all reported a raising of their status because of their pregnancy: they saw themselves as being ‘responsible’, brought up to the level of other adults, and saw themselves ‘slotted in to what a woman can do’ (ibid.: 341). Feminist sociologists have analysed the considerable stigma still attached to the involuntarily childless or to being child-free, even though one in five women born in 1961 will remain childless or child – free (ONS, 1998).
Sally Macintyre (1977), in an equally pioneering study to Oakley’s, showed how the reproductive ideology impacted on single, pregnant women. The medical profession assumed that all illegitimate pregnancies were undesirable and all legitimate ones desired. Macintyre’s rich ethnographic showed that, from the mother’s viewpoint, this was not necessarily true at all. She found single women who had planned to be pregnant, and married ones desperate not to be. Here feminist sociology has accompanied a major shift in British society: the decline in the ‘shame’ attached to illegitimacy, both for the mother and the child. One-third of live births in 1997 were ‘illegitimate’, but four-fifths of these were registered by both parents, and three-quarters of them by cohabiting parents (Social Trends, 29: Social Trends, 50). For individual women illegitimacy may still be stigmatising, but in general it is an acceptable ‘choice’ for a woman over 20, and only frowned on in a young teenager, a ‘girl’ of 12 to 16. For the married woman, and those over 18 in ‘secure’ cohabitations, becoming a mother is a source of securing an adult identity. Removing the stigma of childlessness, and taking on the identity of mother, does, however, bring women up against the health service and for many, into a series of hardships (Graham, 1993). In 30 years of feminist sociology, the
research on reproductive ideologies, on pregnancy, on abortion, on childbirth, and on the relationships between motherhood and poverty has been a major achievement. The studies of fatherhood and of grandparents grew out of this pioneering feminist sociology.
The studies of childbirth and reproduction go back to the early years of feminist sociology. The seventh theme is newer, dating from the 1980s.