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Feminism and the birth rate

By Paul McFadyen - posted Friday, 21 July 2017

It is now around 50 years since second wave feminism changed Australia's culture from a patriarchal society, where the roles of men and women were separate and complementary, towards a feminist society where the roles of men and women are equal and competitive. With the benefit of five decades of feminism we can now assess the impacts of feminism on the birth rate. Having a baby is not only important for an individual woman, but aggregated as the birth rate, determines the power and future of nations.

In 1960, in Australia, the birth rate (total fertility rate) was an average of 3.5 children per woman. This was the baby boom, which the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has shown was actually a marriage boom, rather than a dramatic increase in family size. It was due to more women marrying and as women overwhelmingly only have children if they are partnered, this resulted in the baby boom. This all changed with second wave feminism during the cultural revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s. Over this period the birth rate declined progressively until it fell below the replacement rate of 2.1 in 1976. It has stayed below replacement level every year since then, varying between 1.7 and 1.9 children per woman, a period of over 40 years.

Australian women, who have children, now have an average of 2, but the ABS estimates that 25% of young women will now experience lifetime childlessness. Hence our negative (or below replacement) birth rate of 1.7-1.9. Modern contraceptive devices can prevent unintended pregnancies but they are not the cause of the women's deliberate decisions to limit family size to an average of two. Nor are they the cause of low and late partnering rates which result in lifetime childlessness for around 25% of women.


A negative birth rate can have adverse consequences, such as the ageing of the population with fewer younger workers. This is where we are now. The negative birth rate can also affect the electorally acceptable level of immigration. The post war compact was one immigrant landed for every baby born in Australia to avoid electoral backlash; a key consideration in a democracy. Hence a reduction in the birth rate can reduce the level of immigration that is electorally acceptable. This is important because Australia's post war immigration policy is primarily a long term defence policy.

So why is Australia's birth rate below replacement level, why has it stayed there for so long and why do around 25% of Australian women face lifetime childlessness? Australian women, like women everywhere, have an inherited maternal instinct to want to have a baby resulting from evolutionary selection over millions of years. What has gone wrong?

How has feminism affected the birth rate.

The key factor in studying the birth rate, an obvious factor sometimes overlooked by men, is that the birth rate is all about women having babies and that it is women, not men, who decide;

  • if they will have a baby;
  • when they have a baby; and
  • how many babies they will have.

Hence any change in the role, attitudes and opportunities of women can affect the aggregate birth rate. feminism has changed the attitudes and role of women in society and the birth rate has crashed. So how has feminism affected a woman's attitudes and opportunities to have a baby?


In our modern feminist society high socio-economic women (e.g. with a university degree) have a very low average birth rate with an average of only one child per women. The low birth rate of high socio-economic women is not new. In 1776 Adam Smith noted "luxury in women weakens, if not altogether destroys, the powers of generation". Yet some economists and feminists persist in promoting policies such as increasing participation of women in the workforce, baby bonuses etc., all of which increase the socio-economic position (Adam Smith's "luxury") of women.

Interestingly low socio-economic males also seem to be disproportionally less reproductively successful. This may explain why there appears to have been no overall loss of net genetic capability in the population.

The low reproductive success of these two groups would seem to be due to inherent partnering behaviour of our species. The overwhelming majority of women only allow themselves to become pregnant if they are partnered at the time of conception, so partnering is critical to the birth rate.

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About the Author

Paul McFadyen is a Brisbane writer.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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