Reading Maggie Gallagher on how gay marriage will bring an end to marriage as an institution for procreation and Leon Kass on how the Pill has ruined courtship, you can see the usual story of a vanished golden age. For Kass, it’s the turn of the 2Oth century when “our grandfathers came a-calling and a-wooing at the homes of our grandmothers, under conditions set by the woman, operating from strength on her own turf”. For Gallagher, it seems to be the 1950s.
The assumption is that turning the clock back a century (or half a century) will be enough to restore the golden age. In fact, the turn of the 2Oth century was a period of moral panic cast in terms very similar to those of Kass and Gallagher. As effective family planning became possible for the first time, the birth rate plummeted, falling from 5.1 births per married woman to 2.6 in the space of only forty years for the cohorts born between 1860 and 1900. My mother wrote the book on this. It’s loaded with quoted denunciations of selfish females pursuing pleasure at the expense of their duty to the race.
As for the 1950s, it’s worth noting that the causality relation between procreation and marriage was mixed, to say the least. About 25 per cent of brides were pregnant in this period. Chasing this statistic down, I found a fascinating study by another ANU demographer, Peter McDonald. He argues that the rise of family planning contributed both to the boom in early marriage in the 1950s and to the rise of pre-marital sexual activity. The argument is that “the knowledge that early marriage did not now imply vast numbers of children” made young people unwilling to delay sexual activities, even though access to contraception was largely confined to those who were already married. I think it’s important to add in the influence of the short-lived Golden Age of full employment, starting during World War II and ending in the early 1970s. McDonald is fairly negative about all this, saying that “as high as 60 per cent of teenage marriages in Australia are likely to have ended in divorce.”
Lots of social conservatives want to go back to the 50s. But if we take Kass and Gallagher’s arguments seriously, they lead us back to the 1850s, not the 1950s.