Journal Article

Women as agents in fertility decision-making: Australia, 1870–1910

Conventional theories of fertility transition give little attention to women as agents in fertility decision-making. These theories are based primarily on macro analysis in which correlations are drawn between particular macro trends and aggregate fertility rates. Consequently, the Western fertility transition has been attributed to men who, for mainly economic reasons, exercised control over fertility using male-oriented methods. We use extensive historical records, including verbatim statements made to the 1903 New South Wales Royal Commission into the Decline in the Birth Rate, to argue that women were the principal agents in fertility decision-making in late nineteenth-century Australia, and that the methods used were female methods, often home-made. We place the argument within Giddens’s theory of structuration. When social change occurs, its explanation must be sought at both the macro level (institutions) and the micro level (agents) and in the interaction between the two. Women became the principal agents of fertility decision-making in a system of institutions previously characterized by patriarchy in a context of broad social change that encompassed first-wave feminism. We trace this process through changes in the behavior of individuals and changes in the nature of social institutions as well as the interaction of the two levels.

Published in a peer-reviewed journal of the Population Council.