Skip to main content

Journal of Population Sciences

  • Original Article
  • Open access
  • Published:

Marital fertility and the changing status of women in Europe

Recent trends and characteristics of fertility in Europe

Fertility has by now reached very low levels in all European countries, with the exception of Albania, which is in a deviating situation. Birth rates in the other countries vary between 10 and 25‰, with minimum levels in the two German republics, Luxembourg, Finland, Austria, England and Wales, Belgium, and Sweden, and maximum levels in Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Rumania, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia.

For some countries (6 out of 24), the gross reproduction rate is already less than 2, for others, it is very near to 2 (6 countries) and for less than half of them is slightly higher (Table 1).

Table 1 Birth rate and gross reproduction rate in Europe, 1973

The characteristics of European reproductive behavior generally are precocious age of the woman at marriage (between 23 and 25) and quick formation of the family, with a short first birth interval (1.5 to 2 years) and a second birth interval of about 3 years. The result is that within the first 6 years of marriage, women have already had at least 60% of the offspring that they wish to have, which on the average, is almost everywhere hardly more than two children (cf. UN, 1976a).

Such a situation is diffused with sufficient homogeneity in the different European countries, but each has reached it through its particular history: the Eastern European countries after the intense decline of the second postwar period, only recently substituted by a recovery, generally slight, though strong for some of them (Czechoslovakia and especially Rumania); after a constant decline for other countries (Finland, Yugoslavia), after a slight decline, interrupted by the recovery in the 1960s, for most Northern and Western countries of Europe (Berent, 1970a; Festy, 1970; Glass, 1968). In the meantime, we have witnessed a decrease in the average age at marriage, in fertility over 30 years of age, in the parity progression rates starting from a2, in the average age of the woman at childbirth (even simply because of the decrease of the average number of children).

Undoubtedly, in all European countries, we find a situation in which births are wanted in limited number and consequently are effectively controlled, with different methods. The differences in methods, if not in results, are noteworthy but, in general, birth control methods depending on the initiative of the male predominate everywhere, and in most cases, concern the oldest and least effective of all (coitus interruptus) (Table 2).

Table 2 Current use of main birth control methods

New information from surveys on fertility and family planning: some problems pertaining its utilization

In the last 10 years, a series of direct surveys on this subject has offered a mass of information, the use of which, however, poses some problems. Some of those problems have already been pointed out by Rider (1973) with reference to the National Surveys in the USA and are inherent to the nature of this kind of inquiry; further inconveniences derive from the differences among the various surveys. For instance, the international comparability of the data concerning contraception is far from satisfactory: questions are posed in different ways (sometimes methods are described, other times only quoted, or the interviewee is left to indicate them), the contraception period referred to is quite variable (the latest methods used, methods used habitually, methods used after the last pregnancy, methods used in the last month), and what is worse, a very rigid set of questions proposes a pattern of behavior which distinguishes between two types of couples only—those who do not want any children and consequently use one of the indicated birth control methods and those who do not use any of the indicated methods because they wish to have children or because they are sterile. Actually, only some of the couples, be it the most, fall within these two alternatives because there are other married couples who do not use any of the indicated methods even if they do not think of themselves as sterile or do not wish to have children either (the percentage varies between 11 and 32%) (Table 3). In general, no great importance is attributed to whether these married couples intend to resort to abortion in case of pregnancy or whether they simply refuse to discuss the subject, or they leave it to chance to decide for them about their reproductive future, because what matters is to stress the “contraceptive” behavior. However, the substantial number of couples who do not fall within this pattern shows that in many cases the proposed sort of rationality of reproductive behavior does not correspond to reality.

Table 3 Percent of fecund nonpregnant women who do not want more children and do not use contraception

Moreover, other data suggest that in the family building process many couples do not follow a behavior absolutely similar to that of a builder constructing a house, but are, on the contrary, rather approximative and casual: quite a number, in fact, cannot indicate how many children they expect to have in the future (9% in Denmark and France, 16% in Finland, from 5 to 22% in the three large towns of the 1972 Italian survey) and many people do not remember if, at the moment of marriage, they had already planned the number of children they wanted to have or even remember that they had no plans at all (30% of the couples interviewed in an Italian survey of 1969 (Bielli, Pinnelli, & Russo, 1973), slightly over 50% in Denmark, Finland, Hungary, over 30% in France) (UN, 1976b). On the other hand, many children are born when they are not altogether wanted or before their parents expected (40–50% of third-born children, 25–30% of second-born children, 10–20% of first-born children, according to two Italian surveys (Bielli et al., 1975, 1973)).

Moreover, an aspect of reproductive behavior which has not been made adequately clear is that of birth spacing, which cannot be related to a typology connected with the social and economic factors that generally explain well enough the differences in fertility, in age at marriage, or in contraceptive behavior. This probably happens because the choices of the married couples about birth spacing depend more on the individual and family context than on the social context, and also because, on the one hand, the effectiveness of contraception is presumably higher and the possible recourse to abortion more frequent in not exceeding the desired number of children than in spacing births, and on the other hand, the waiting times for conception, after the interruption of birth control, may vary. To evaluate the degree of rationality of reproductive behavior, birth spacing is not particularly useful, but it may be interesting to know if the couples did desire that particular birth in that particular period. Not only is this information very seldom provided by surveys on fertility, but it can also easily be distorted by a late acceptance of the unplanned pregnancy.

Factors hindering or favoring the rationality of reproductive behavior

The above considerations are sufficient warnings against classifying reproductive behavior, in the countries with a low fertility rate, in the domain of reason and assuming that it will conform perfectly to the existing stereotypes.

It may sound obvious, but it is worth recalling that rationalization of reproductive behavior has been and actually is hindered by the attitude of the religious and political authorities. Suffice it to mention the influence of the Catholic church, through its sexuophobic and fatalistic education and through the prohibition of any method of birth control apart from the rhythm method, or of the influence of the governments of many countries where the sale and propaganda of contraceptives were forbidden until some years ago or still are (for instance, both are still prohibited in Spain and were prohibited until 1971 in Italy, until 1967 in France; propaganda and public display are still prohibited in Belgium), or where, even if the sale of contraceptives is allowed; no other commitments are made for family planning education. The importance of an information service on family planning appears, for instance, from the data concerning the different methods of birth control used by British couples when they have had recourse to a consultory clinic and when they have not. The couples who did not visit a clinic base the limitation of births almost exclusively on condoms and on coitus interruptus, while the others benefit from a much ampler gamut of methods (Berelson, 1974).

However, we can suppose that there is a tendency to rationality which is mainly expressed in the knowledge and in the use of the most acceptable and safest birth control methods and in the decrease of unwanted pregnancies. In other words, the capacity to set and attain procreative objectives has increased. On the other hand, on the basis of the abovementioned observations, the rationalization process does not seem to be leading to a precise pattern of birth spacing.

In accordance with the subject of this seminar, I intend, by analyzing the results of surveys made in different European countries, to argue that the process of female emancipation may help the rationalization of reproductive behavior (within the limits in which I have already defined it). I shall take educational expansion and work outside the home as indicators of female emancipation, although emancipation depends, even to a larger extent, on the removal of a general situation of subordination which is only partially expressed by the participation in education and the labor force. Female subordination is actually found in all kinds of conditioning (political, social, and cultural) which are difficult to specify but which prevent the woman from freely determining her destiny: not only her intelligence and labor force but also her marital status, her sexuality, and her reproductive capacity.

Female work

The strong decrease in family size, together with the greater concentration on the reproductive activity in the younger ages for women, has radically transformed their theoretical availability for working activities outside the home. In fact, the time necessary for reproduction and childrearing is already greatly reduced in all European countries, and consequently, women are much less conditioned than before by their biological destiny: soon enough they can be present again on the work market, or may leave it for only very short periods when suitable social structures can help them rear the children. The truth is, however, that the rate of female activity is high in some countries and very low in others, is increasing somewhere and decreasing elsewhere, notwithstanding the constantly rather low natality level (Table 4).

Table 4 Female activity rates, all ages, around 1950, 1960, and 1970 (exact year in brackets if considerably different)

The highest rates of female activity are found in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union, closely followed by Denmark and Finland, and followed at some distance by some countries of Central and Northern Europe (Austria, Belgium, France, Western Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, UK). In the other countries, rates are very low. The decline of agricultural activities, in which women were occupied to a large extent, has hardly ever been counterbalanced by a corresponding increase of the female activity in other fields. Moreover, male emigration has shifted male labor force to places where the alternative to the scarcity of local male labor force could have been a higher female occupation.

This is not the suitable moment for a thorough analysis of the characteristics and trends of female occupation in Europe for which we suggest therefore to see the study of the United Nations (UN, 1969) on this subject: suffice it to underline here that they do not depend on the demographic situation that has created everywhere a great potential of female labor force, nor on the desire of women for emancipation, but on the kind of development and on the occupational policy of the various countries, which almost always keep the female population as a reservoir labor force, and when they employ women, generally relegate them to subordinate positions.

If the different female presence on the work market in the various European countries is not connected with a differentiation in the family size, it does not seem either to have much to do with different contraceptive behavior. Contraception is affected rather by religious, and especially political conditioning, as mentioned above, and consequently by the degree of information on contraception available in the various countries. However, within each country, we constantly notice lower fertility among working women (Table 5). It has been verified clearly enough that the differences between working women and housewives are of little significance if their activity is agricultural or if they have a part-time or intermittent job, while these differences become significant in the other cases (cf. Berent, 1970b; Pinnelli, 1967, 1968; Tabah, 1971).

Table 5 Actual and expected number of children according to wife’s work

The differences relate to the number of children they already have, as well as the number of children they expect to have, but they are not systematic as far as the times of family building are concerned—the lower fertility of working women persists even if we only consider women who have already had at least one child (i.e., fecund) and eliminate the influence of the duration of the marriage and of the socioeconomic situation (Bielli et al., 1975; UN, 1976b). On the contrary, no relation is evident between the fertility level and the intention to work in the future or to continue to work: what matters is the interest shown for the type of work, which is however closely related to the woman’s social level (Bielli et al., 1973; Safilios-Rothschild, 1969). The lower fertility of working women is not systematically correlated to a more modern use of birth control nor, in the few countries for which information is available, to a lower percentage of unwanted births (Tables 6 and 7).

Table 6 Percent of users currently using withdrawal, pill or IUD, and rhythm according to woman’s work
Table 7 Percent of unwanted births. Women in Belgium who had childbirth between January 1, 1968, and December 31, 1970

The use of coitus interruptus is considerably less frequent for working women only in Yugoslavia and Hungary, while in Belgium, England and Wales, Finland, and France, it is even slightly more frequent.

In Italy, the percentage of unwanted births is higher for working women than for housewives; in Belgium, the highest percentage is for working women on maternity leave. In Greece, instead, the working woman, especially if she is greatly interested in her work, plans her family with greater efficacy and using more effective methods.

Thus, from the few available data, we can draw a rather contradictory picture, the explanation of which might, perhaps, be sought in the different social conditions of the two groups of working women and housewives. For instance, the result of the survey in three large Italian towns is that working women, on the whole, are acquainted with a larger number of birth control methods compared with housewives; but if we distinguish between those who are higher up the scale of professions and those who are lower down, we notice that the situation is extremely differentiated since better acquaintance with the methods is a prerogative of working women of higher social status (Table 8).

Table 8 Some characteristics of reproductive behavior, according to woman’s work. Three big cities in Italy, 1972

Since the typology of birth control methods in use is closely related in all countries to social circumstances, female work is likely to involve more modern contraceptive behavior only when a middle or upper social class is involved and not in the other cases.

It is even likely to have no influence at all in itself since all the possible differences may depend solely on the social circumstances. This appears, for instance, from the results of the 1972 Italian survey in three large towns (Bielli et al., 1975), in which the lack of systematic influence of female work on contraceptive behavior is confirmed by a further specification concerning the education of women. At the highest level of education, there is no difference in contraceptive behavior between working women and housewives, and at the lowest level, working women even use coitus interruptus more frequently, i.e., a more backward model of behavior in comparison with housewives. Only at a lower secondary educational level, do working women have a more advanced contraceptive model.

Female education

It is hard to discriminate the possible influence of female education on the rationalization of reproductive behavior from all the other elements composing the social status of a woman, among which education is only a part. Actually, there is a considerable similarity in the trends of data concerning reproductive and contraceptive behavior, in relation to the profession and education of the woman, as well as of the husband, and in relation to their income—i.e. the most frequent status indicators. Thus, it is impossible to say whether the woman’s better education or rather the whole of circumstances contributing to a more elevated status make her behavior different. For this reason, we shall consider the woman’s education without giving it a completely autonomous value in respect to the other indicators.

Nowadays, in the countries with low fertility rates, we see two kinds of relations between education and actual or expected fertility; the more diffused is the inverse relation, the higher the education, the lower the fertility. The U-shaped relation is slightly less diffused: lowest fertility for moderately educated women, highest fertility for the least educated women, and average fertility for the best educated women (Table 9). Similar relations are found between the education and profession of the husband and the family income on one side, and the actual or expected number of children on the other, with a higher frequency of the U-shaped relation.

Table 9 Actual and expected number of children according to wife’s education

As for the time of family building, the age of the woman at marriage increases parallel to the educational and socio-economic level, while a systematic relationship with birth spacing has not been found.

The higher the socioeconomic, and particularly the educational level of the woman, the better is her acquaintance with the various birth control methods and the less diffused the use of coitus interruptus to the benefit of other methods, especially the rhythm method in the predominantly Catholic countries (Tables 10, 11, and 12).

Table 10 Percent of users, currently using withdrawal or rhythm according to wife’s education
Table 11 Number of birth control methods known, among 8 indicated, according to wife’s education, three big cities in Italy, 1972
Table 12 Percent of pill users from 1963 to 1970, according to wife’s education, Belgium 1970–1971

Moreover, on the basis of the few available data on the subject, the more educated the woman, the better her capacity of family planning (Tables 13, 14, and 15).

Table 13 Percent of completely or partly planned births, according to wife’s education, Netherlands, 1969, marriage cohorts 1958 and 1963
Table 14 Timing of first child, according to wife’s education, Denmark, 1970
Table 15 Percent of women who did not know how many children they wanted at time of marriage, according to education

In conclusion, from the analysis of the data concerning the relations between a woman’s education and her procreative behavior, we can draw a rather consistent picture, which was not possible when considering female activity. This leads us to single out one factor of rationalization of reproductive behavior, i.e., the increase of education and more generally of social status (of which education is an indicator). Work outside the home would need further specification, connected with the socio-economic condition, before we can make its influence clear.


The paper argues the hypothesis that expansion of educational opportunities and work outside the home, considered as indicators of female emancipation, may foster the rationalization of the various aspects of reproductive behavior (family size, times of family building, birth control methods known or used, capacity for planning the number and timing of births).

According to the results of surveys carried out in some European countries in the last 10 years, we can establish that female work has a negative influence on family size but does not systematically entail a greater rationality of reproductive behavior. Expansion of educational opportunities, on the other hand, does seem to be clearly linked with a process of rationalization, expressed by a greater capacity for planning reproductive activity, as well as by the acquaintance with and use of more modern birth control methods.


  • Berelson, B. (1974). Population policy in developed countries. New York: Population Council.

    Google Scholar 

  • Berent, J. (1970a). Causes of fertility decline in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Population Studies, 24(1), 35–58 and vol. 24, no. 2, 1970a, pp. 247–292.

    Google Scholar 

  • Berent, J. (1970b). Aspects démographiques de l'emploi des femmes en Europe Orientale et en URSS (demographic aspects of female employment in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union). Revue Internationale du Travail, 101(2), 191–210.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bielli, C., Maffioli, D., Pinnelli, A., & Zannella, F. (1975). Fecondità e lavoro della donna in ambiente urbano (fertility and female work in urban areas). Rome: Instituto di Demografia.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bielli, C., Pinnelli, A., & Russo, A. (1973). Fecondità e lavoro della donna; Un'indagine in quattro zone tipiche italiane (fertility and female work; a survey in four typical Italian areas). Rome: Instituto di Demografia.

    Google Scholar 

  • Emery-Hauzeur, C., & E. A. Sand (1974). Naissances désiréees et non désiréees (desired and not desired births), Population et Famille, 31(1), 1–26.

  • Festy, P. (1970). Evolution de la fécondité en Europe Occidentale depuis la guerre (fertility trends in Western Europe after the war). Population, 25(2), 229–274.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Glass, D. V. (1968). Fertility trends in Europe since the world war. Population Studies, 22(1), 103–146.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Moors, H. G. (1974). Child spacing and family size in the Netherlands. Leyden: H. E. Stenfert Kroese.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Mørkeberg, H. (1974). The married woman's first child. Yearbook of Population Research in Finland, 13, 37–46.

  • Morsa, J. (1973). Une enquéte nationale sur la fécondité; Diffusion de la contraception orale (a national survey on fertility; Spread of oral contraception). Population et Famille, 29(2), 25–36.

  • Pinnelli, A. (1967). La fecondità differenziale; Rassegna delle indagini - Parte I (differential fertility; a review of researches - Part I). Genus, XXIII(3–4), 247–305.

  • Pinnelli, A. (1968). La fecondità differenziale; Rassegna delle indagini - Parte II (differential fertility; a review of researches - Part II). Genus, XXIV(1–4), 215–248.

  • Rider, N. B. (1973). A critique of the national fertility study. Demography, 10(4), 495–506.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Safilios-Rothschild, C. (1969). Socio-psychological factors affecting fertility in urban Greece. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 31, 595–606.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tabah, L.(1971). Les relations entre fécondité et la condition sociale et économique de la famille en Europe; Leur repercussions sur la politique sociale (the relationship between fertility and socioeconomic conditions of the family in Europe; its influence on social policy), Conseil de l'Europe, Strasbourg.

  • UN, United Nations (1969). Economic survey of Europe; The European economy in 1968. United Nations, New York.

  • UN, United Nations (1976a). Etude sur la situation économique de l’ Europe en 1974; Deuxième partie: L’énvolution démographique de l’Europe depuis la guerre et les perspectives jusqu'au l’an 2000 (Economic survey of Europe in 1974; part two: post-war demographic trends in Europe and the outlook until the year 2000), United Nations, New York.

  • UN, United Nations (1976b). Fertility and family planning in Europe around 1970; a comparative study of twelve national surveys. United Nations, New York.

  • Valaoras, V. G., Polychronopoulou, A., & Trichopoulos, D. (1965). Control of family size in Greece. Population Studies, 18(3), 265–278.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Author notes

  1. Antonella Pinnelli is deceased. This paper is dedicated to her memory.

    • Antonella Pinnelli
  2. This article was previously published: Pinnelli A. (1978) Marital fertility and the changing status of women in Europe. In: Niphuis-Nell M. (eds) Demographic aspects of the changing status of women in Europe. Publications of the Netherlands Interuniversity Demographic Institute (N.I.D.I) and the Population and Family Study Centre (C.B.G.S), vol 7. Springer, Boston, MA. © Netherlands Interuniversity Demographic Institute 1978.

    • The article was republished at the request of the Editors-in-Chief in memory of the missing colleague Antonella Pinnelli



      Not applicable - this article is being republished.

      Corresponding author

      Correspondence to Antonella Pinnelli.

      Ethics declarations

      Competing interest

      Not applicable - this article is being republished.

      Additional information

      Publisher’s Note

      Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

      This article was previously published: Pinnelli A. (1978) Marital fertility and the changing status of women in Europe. In: Niphuis-Nell M. (eds) Demographic aspects of the changing status of women in Europe. Publications of the Netherlands Interuniversity Demographic Institute (N.I.D.I) and the Population and Family Study Centre (C.B.G.S), vol 7. Springer, Boston, MA. © Netherlands Interuniversity Demographic Institute 1978.

      The article was republished at the request of the Editors-in-Chief in memory of the missing colleague Antonella Pinnelli

      Rights and permissions

      Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.

      Reprints and permissions

      About this article

      Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

      Cite this article

      Pinnelli, A. Marital fertility and the changing status of women in Europe. Genus 76, 4 (2020).

      Download citation

      • Published:

      • DOI: