In this latest excellent blog Dr Holly Ashford examines ‘ideas of modern’ Motherhood in 1960s and 1970s Ghana.
In 1967, those sitting on Ghana’s Committee on the Status of Women complained that the government wasn’t paying women any attention. Not only were they disregarded in national politics, and their opinions not sought when it came to economic policy, they also fiercely pointed out that even the women’s columns of newspapers were edited by men![i] A glance at ‘Mainly for Women’ pages in popular Ghanaian newspapers The Ghanaian Times and The Daily Graphic might explain the Committee’s exasperation. These newspapers frequently referred to the way women dressed, cooked and mothered.[ii] The images of women shown in newspapers in the newly independent nation were aspirational: moulding modern mothers was a nationalist endeavour. These women’s columns give historians a glimpse into what public discourse on ‘modern’ women looked like in 1960s and 70s Ghana.
Modern Mothers under Nkrumah
In 1957, Ghana won its independence from Britain after six years of diarchic government. In 1960, Ghana became a republic and Kwame Nkrumah its new President. Nkrumah promised that economic freedom would follow political freedom and that he would preside over a rise in living standards and extensive development projects. Nkrumah’s government saw a need for population growth in order to fulfil these development aspirations. Public discourse in newspapers therefore reflected the importance of modern motherhood.
In July 1960 the Ghanaian Times featured this picture of a new mother’s experience: ‘The excitement is over, and you are back to your house with a fine bundle – a brand new baby. Alone in the house without the assistance of nurses you get scared.’ The article goes on to give some handy tips on how to bathe the baby. What’s interesting though is the completely misleading representation of Ghanaian motherhood this description offers. The vast majority of women in Ghana would not have returned to an empty house with a new baby: they lived with extended families – an average of 10.6 people per house, according to the census. Secondly, most women did not give birth in hospital but at home. This picture was clearly one of aspirational modernity.
The ideal ‘New Year Bride’ of 1964 was to maintain her socialist ideals. Women were to work both inside and outside the home in order to strive for Ghana’s future prosperity. However, women were not to hop ‘from office to office’ in their fineries but ‘change from the old purposeless life to a new objective goal.’ This objective goal was marriage. Women should ‘aspire to be good home-makers and good housewives’ and work for ‘Mother Africa’ and ‘Mother Ghana.’ Note here the gendered language used to describe the new nation: the motherly role is revered.
Meanwhile, laws on abortion became stricter and the punishments for procuring one more severe. Doctors who were concerned about high fertility rates at the time testified to a ban on contraceptives and what family planning was available was carried out behind closed doors.
Modern Women and Family Planning
All this changed after Nkrumah was overthrown in 1966. The new government, the National Liberation Council, was keen on a quick fix for the country’s economic troubles and opened its doors to foreign aid and assistance. One less remarked upon turn around in policy was the launch of a National Family Planning Programme (NFPP) in 1970, which aimed to drastically reduce fertility. The NFPP was supported by aid and advice from the Ford Foundation, IPPF, USAID, CIDA and others. Curbing the population ‘problem’ was a necessity for economic development according to these transnational organisations and the new Ghanaian government. In newspapers, modernity was now firmly equated with women who took up family planning.
Sister Elizabeth Kwofie wrote in the Daily Graphic in 1969 that the older generation of women offered ‘old wives’ tales’ even though modern, scientific solutions for reproductive health could now be found. Indeed, family planning was frequently talked about in Ghanaian newspapers in opposition to ‘tradition.’ Likewise, in an article entitled ‘The five stages of woman’, published in 1969 the journalist happily told woman that she no longer had to be ‘in pawn to her glands and hormones’ nor listen to ‘old wives’ tales.’ She could be in control of her body thanks to synthetic hormones. This futuristic vision of womanhood again played on the idea that modernity – and in this case new scientific and technological advances – would change women’s lives.
However, there’s also an essentialism: women’s bodies are presented in their reproductive capacity. Articles talked about children needing their mothers at home for stability and mental health. Women wrote into newspapers requesting information on family planning, but only after they already had four children. The push for family planning was not supposed to be emancipatory, nor was there a serious reimagining of women’s roles as reproducers rather than producers. Here, in March 1970 the month the NFPP was launched, Ghana’s Radio Times shows an elated young mother and healthy child under the heading: ‘Family Planning. Why it’s Necessary in Ghana.’ The message from this picture is clear, women were responsible for producing healthy, happy children. Just not too many of them.
This advert from The Daily Graphic shows the emerging importance of a new kind of consumerism in Ghana. In the context of the Cold War, consumption and the use of new technologies in domestic spaces became a marker of Westernisation. Meanwhile, the ‘modern’ family, depicted here, is decidedly nuclear and the parents have only one child in tow. The ‘modern way of living’ simply didn’t look like most Ghanaian’s lives: for a start, the average fertility rate was around seven children per woman in 1970.
In light of a contemporary discourse that blames overpopulation for the environmental problems that we are now seeing across the globe, pressure to lower fertility has not gone away. Furthermore, like in the 1960s and 70s, the responsibility to change childbearing behaviour apparently falls to African women and media continue to promote aspirational views. The BBC reported that ‘Africa’s population boom is changing our world’ in 2017, part of a trend which situates the overpopulation problem in Africa.[iii]
[i] Public Records and Archives Administration Department, Accra, RG 3/8/292
[ii] The articles referred to in this blog all come from: The Daily Graphic, The Ghanaian Times, The Sunday Mirror and The Radio Times in the 1960s and 70s. They were sources at the British Library or the Balme Library at the University of Ghana.
[iii] ‘How African’s population boom is changing our world’, 25th August, 2017. Last accessed at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-africa-41055078/how-africa-s-population-boom-is-changing-our-world
Dr Ashford’s research is on the history of women’s reproductive health in Africa, particularly Ghana. Her PhD examines connections between changing and malleable concepts of ‘development’ and the history of women’s reproductive health in Ghana from 1920 – 1980. She is particularly interested in how various discourses of development affected health implementation and women’s experiences during this period.