Sexuality, marriage, parenthood & divorce

Attitudes to sexuality

At the beginning of the twentieth century, following centuries of teaching from the church, it was commonly believed that sexual intercourse should only take place between a man and a woman. Until 1967, homosexual acts in private were illegal. After homosexuality was decriminalised, attitudes towards sexual identity and relations gradually became more liberal. Bisexuality and transgenderism became more acceptable. Reflecting this, the portrayal of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender characters in mainstream culture became increasingly commonplace.


In 1900, influenced by received Christian teaching, the general view of society was that sexual intercourse should only take place within marriage. This belief was not always put into practice, but an unmarried girl who became pregnant was frequently regarded as an object of disgrace. The two world wars saw a rise in sexual activity outside marriage, as young people sought pleasure which could at any time be denied them by death in conflict. However, despite the two world wars, traditional attitudes continued to dominate up to the 1960s, particularly as the most reliable method of avoiding unwanted pregnancies was not that effective.
Contraceptive pillThe 1960s is often regarded as a decade of sexual revolution. Many members of the younger generation wanted to rebel against the traditional attitudes of their parents. The arrival of much more reliable contraception in the shape of the Pill in 1961 meant that women were liberated from anxiety about possible conception. Although initially only prescribed to married women, in 1974 the Pill became available to single women. 
Socially it began to become acceptable to live together and start a family without getting married. This trend grew rapidly in the remaining years of the century. By 2011 the numbers of children born to co-habiting and married couples was almost 50/50% and traditional marriage was regarded as a ‘lifestyle choice’ rather than a given.


Factors leading to change

Traditionally, the role of women in marriage was to stay at home and raise children, while men had careers and played a role in public life. However, during both world wars, many women played a vital role in the workplace, filling in for men who were away fighting. Nevertheless, once each of the wars was over, there was strong pressure for women to resume their traditional lifestyles.
There were three distinct sources of pressure for change in this situation:
  • Women over 30 were given the right to vote in 1918 and they gained equal voting rights with men in 1930. Increasingly, their views had to be taken into account by politicians.
  • In the years following the Second World War, free secondary education became available and there was a growth in university and college places. These developments created a greater sense of ambition among young women. Many wanted the same opportunities that were available to young men.
  • The availability of the contraceptive pill from 1961 onwards gave women unprecedented control over the reproductive process. It was now possible to plan the size of families and the timing of births in a way which had never before been possible. Family life could, to some extent, be planned around the needs of a woman's career.

Fulfilment in work

The number of women in the workforce rose steadily in the first half of the twentieth century, although they were often regarded as working due to financial necessity, rather than out of a desire for personal fulfilment. However, the idea of women seeking fulfilment through employment rather than domesticity gained ground. The post-war growth in college and university places, particularly from the 1970s onwards, led to an increase in the number of women in prestigious professions such as medicine and law.


These developments brought changing attitudes and behaviour as regards parenthood. The age at which women became mothers increased steadily, from the early twenties to the early thirties, particularly for those women who accessed higher education. With greater involvement in paid employment, child-care issues needed to be resolved. In some cases, grandparents took on child-minding responsibilities. But this was not always possible, as people increasingly moved away from their hometowns in pursuit of employment. As a result, it became increasingly common for childcare to be carried out by paid non-family members, such as childminders and nurseries.


At the start of the twentieth century, marriage law in England and Wales reflected the traditional views of the Church of England. Marriage was regarded as a commitment made for life. Divorce was undesirable and the process of obtaining a divorce was deliberately made difficult and expensive.
However, as the century progressed, divorce became more accessible:
  • The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1937 gave women greater equality with men in seeking a divorce
  • The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1973 made divorce significantly easier to obtain. After three years of marriage, it simply had to be shown that the marriage had irretrievably broken down
  • The Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act of 1984 made divorce possible after just one year.
As a result of these legal changes, the number of marriages ending in divorce rose considerably, as did the practice of remarrying, often more than once.

Modern families

By the end of the twentieth century, the family unit was frequently much more diffused than the traditional model of two married, monogamous parents with two or three children in one household. Instead many families included step-parents, unmarried partners, step siblings and half siblings, who often divided their time between two homes.
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