The Importance of Identifying Childfree and Childless Women Through History

When I started this project, over two years ago, I wanted to see how many women without children I could find. I wanted to get a sense of how prevalent (or not) it might have been in the past not to marry and/or not to have children.

Until the 20th century, most women who had no children were also single, which is why there is significant overlap between spinsters and childless women.

A quick Google search led me to the following names:

  • Queen Elizabeth I
  • Jane Austen
  • Susan B. Anthony 
  • Clara Barton
  • Florence Nightingale
  • Frida Kahlo
  • Greta Garbo
  • Katharine Hepburn
  • Mary Cassatt
  • Georgia O’Keeffe
  • Coco Chanel
  • Louisa May Alcott*

It was a good start, however, I couldn’t seem to be able to find more than a limited number of names and wondered if it was because there were really no other childless women in history or if it was because they had been overlooked? As I write this blog post, I scroll down my Excel spreadsheet to see how many women I have listed at this moment….over 950! That’s right, I have close to 1,000 names of women throughout history that had no children and made enough of an impact that they are mentioned in encyclopedias, biographies, letters, and more.

Although it can be difficult to separate childless women (who want children but don’t have them) from childfree women (who don’t want children and don’t have them), the most important part is that these women had no children of their own.*

With the growing popularity of the childfree movement and the increased awareness within the mainstream media of the childless community, there has also been stronger and louder hostility towards the fact that women who have no children are voicing their own experiences. Attacked on many different fronts (from being called “selfish” to being accused of eugenics), opponents of the childfree movement often angrily repeat the same notions that womanhood is defined by motherhood, has always been, and that abstaining from reproduction will cause the downfall of human society. It’s in part to refute those arguments that I want to share the names of numerous historical women who did not conform to the traditional path of marriage and motherhood.

In view of the main argument that choosing not to have children is selfish, it’s especially relevant that some of these women were known for their selflessness and devoting their lives to others (ex: Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, Rosa Parks, Dorothy Height, and Rachel Carson).

Another important aspect that isn’t always obvious is the fact that many of the attacks aimed at unmarried women or women with no children today aren’t new. In 1862, an essay titled Why are Women Redundant? was published with the following argument, quite similar to the criticism heard today:

Source: The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: Concise Edition, Volume B, 2nd Ed., p.619

Why are Women Redundant?” (1862)
“There is an enormous and increasing number of single women in the nation, a number quite disproportionate and quite abnormal; a number which […] is indicative of an unwholesome social state. […] There are hundreds of thousands of women […] who, not having the natural duties and labours of wives and mothers […] who, in place of […] embellishing the existence of others, are compelled to lead an independent and incomplete existence of their own.”

Both the existence of women without children – and a somehow correlated opposition from critics and misogynists – can be found throughout the last few centuries. Identifying the numerous childless and childfree women from the past and present is therefore essential in countering some of the current resistance women face, especially the false notion that everyone married and had children until recently.

I want to make sure I emphasize how essential previous scholarship has been and how important it is to have multiple books discuss the lives of women without children. Below is a list of ten women from the 16th century to 20th century and books in which they are mentioned: some are very well-known, others are forgotten; some left extensive documents, others only limited legal and administrative documents; some married, others remained single; all had no children of their own.

The goal of this very small sample is simply to show that for every famous childless woman, there is another who has been overlooked or forgotten. The research into the lives of women without children has yet to be exhausted, which means the number of known childless or childfree women will only continue to grow. For now, I recommend these books to learn more about some of these women’s lives.

Anna Bijns (1493– 1575) – Antwerp, Belgium

Elizabeth I (1533 –  1603) – England/UK

Mary Astell (1666 – 1731) – England/UK

Mary Rowte (c. 1673 – 1745) – England/UK

Mary Masters (c. 1694 – 1771) – England/UK

Gertrude Savile (1697– 1758) – England/UK

Susan B. Anthony (1820 – 1906) – USA

Louisa May Alcott (1832 – 1888) – USA

Beatrix Potter (1866 – 1943) – England/UK

Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941) – England/UK

* After the death of her sister due to childbirth complications, Louisa May Alcott adopted her months-old niece, Lulu, and cared for her. By the time of Louisa May Alcott’s death, Lulu was only eight years old. There are other women throughout history who took over parental roles for younger relatives – which isn’t surprising given the high mortality rates. Technically, at the end of her life, Louisa May Alcott wasn’t childless or childfree, since she was a parental figure to her niece, however, she remains an important symbol of independence – from marriage since she remained single, but also from the traditional view of motherhood.

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