Birthrates may be in decline around the world, but what surprises many observers is that the lowest are found in the more conservative countries of Eastern Europe and East Asia, where traditional values and motherhood have historically been prized. They aren’t found in the most progressive countries of Northern and Western Europe, where gender equality is the norm and a high percentage of women of childbearing age work outside the home.
This implies that the relationship between fertility and gender equality is more complicated than many realize. Historically, initial efforts at gender equality have been linked to low fertility, as men and women struggle to find a new balance around work and family, but then the most egalitarian places seem to have higher birthrates. Feminism and fertility may thus follow a reverse J-curve: Childbearing may fall as equality is first embraced, but the full incorporation of egalitarian policies and norms may subsequently bring fertility back up, closer to the replacement level of about 2.1 children per woman.
In other words, the most problematically low fertility may come from an incomplete revolution in gender norms, the idea being that women are more likely to have children when they can more easily combine work and family, when they have partners who share the work of raising the next generation, and when the larger society has gotten behind such egalitarian family norms. This is what led British Member of Parliament David Willetts, in a report on the threat low birthrates pose to Europe’s pension systems, to argue that “feminism is the new natalism.” Academics, including the political scientist Leonard Schoppa and the sociologist Frances Goldscheider, have similarly argued that persistently low fertility rates confronting Japan, Italy, and others are a product of too little feminism.