EMMA’S REVIEW: Without Children: The Long History of Not Being a Mother

★★★★☆

Overview

Despite its title, Without Children: The long history of not being a mother is, at its core, about mothering and the various types of motherhood: postponed, denied, unrealized, created, and sometimes, unwanted. While it is not a historical perspective on childless and childfree women, some examples are featured throughout.

Written by Peggy O’Donnell Heffington, a University of Chicago historian, and published by Seal Press, the in-depth research is undeniable. The author explores the impact of policies, access to healthcare, cost of childcare, and other external factors that influence women’s choice to become mothers. Rightfully, she emphasizes that for many women (through history or today) not having children might not be that much of a choice given that we all operate within relatively strict confines (from the biological framework of reproduction to the flawed financial system of capitalism). 

Women’s agency to not have children (whether not at all, not anymore, or not right now) is analyzed in the book’s six chapters, with each of them being devoted to a specific reason behind that so-called choice, from access to reproductive justice to infertility to environmental concerns. 

Review

As an advocate for childfree women and as someone who is passionate about the history of women without children, I was excited to receive an advanced copy of this book. While the content of the book didn’t quite match the expectations I had (mainly that this would be a deepdive into the history of women without any children), the writing was engaging and the quality of the research and subject knowledge was evident. For these reasons, I consider this book to be worth the read.

If your interests include women’s history, reproductive justice, and the study of motherhood, you will most likely love this book. However, if you expect an overview of the history of childless and childfree women, you might be disappointed by the book’s focus on motherhood and its pronatalist messaging.

Chapter 1: “Because we’ve always made choices”

The very first woman featured in this book (and in this chapter) is Madame Restell (1812-1878), a notorious provider of contraceptive methods and abortions in New York City who witnessed the societal and legal shift that started in the mid-1850s which made abortions illegal. Most of the chapter is devoted to Madame Restell, her enemies, and her role in this fluctuating but defining time of women’s health history. As she was herself a mother, I found it surprising that she was featured so prominently, although I understand that her story highlights the fact that early abortion was not only socially accepted and legal in the past but that outlawing abortion doesn’t eliminate the need (or demand) for it – even when it becomes a dangerous and unsafe choice for women to make.

In the middle of this chapter, the author provides a short list of famed women without children, including Elizabeth I as well as “ Jane Austen, George Eliot, all three of the Brontës, Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein. […] Susan B. Anthony. Rosa Parks. Julia Child.”

Note: I’ve added an ellipse in the quoted sentence to remove the name of Harriet Tubman and the mention of her adopted daughters since those adoptions made her a mother, even if they happened later in life.

After these quick mentions and some interesting statistics on childlessness and fertility rates today and in the past, the reader is brought back to the story of Madame Restell and the worldwide history of contraceptives and abortion, which helps re-contextualize the current and ongoing debate about abortion rights in the U.S.

“Was I writing a history of infertility, nuns, and spinsterhood, then? Fortunately for all of us, the answer is no.” Ouch! I’ll admit that my negative reaction to this sentence stems from my own profound interest in those subjects – a history that I’ve been studying for the past few years now and that continues to be both stereotyped and overshadowed.

Chapter 2: “Because we’ll be on our own”

This second chapter is devoted to the notions of collective parenting and family socialism, models in which parenting and child-rearing are shared across the community. This contrasts with the modern idea of the nuclear family in which child-rearing tends to be done in an insulated manner by the primary caregivers (often the mothers). This individualized (and solitary) way of building families correlates with lowered fertility rates as women are stretched too thin without an effective support network.

When raising children is perceived as a community effort, childless women are of course included, as exemplified in the youth of the future Founding Father John Hancock, who grew up with his uncle and aunt, Thomas and Lydia Hancock, a childless couple. The author furthermore illustrates this system of family socialism through the life of the civil rights activist Ella Baker (1903-1986), who experienced it in her own childhood as well as in her adulthood when she, a childless woman in her mid-40s who “wasn’t interested, really, in having children per se” had to care for her 8-year-old niece Jackie, due to family circumstances. Of course, this involvement in raising or nurturing children isn’t limited to caring for direct relatives, as the book shows through Carrie Steele Logan (c. 1829-1900), founder of the first orphanage for Black children in the United States, who had no children of her own but devoted her time, energy, and finances to orphaned children in need.

The focus of this chapter seemed to be to show that childless women can still be mothers as the author specifically states that “not all of [these women] had biological children of their own, but most of [them] served, at some point or other, as someone’s mother”. In my opinion, this unfortunately reinforces the common idea that all women are inherently mothers and mother figures, even if only as temporary substitutes to the child’s own mother.

Chapter 3: “Because we can’t have it all”

This chapter begins by examining Having It All (1982), written by Helen Gurley Brown (1922-2012), the sexually liberated, childfree, and controversial editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, who offended both feminists and traditionalists with her opinions.

While the meaning of “having it all” varies from woman to woman, there’s no denying that being a mother is considered a prerequisite, as demonstrated by comments which followed the nominations of two women without children, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

This chapter delves into the pressures that women have always faced in regard to balancing it all, especially working and motherhood. The author rightfully reminds us that the stay-at-home mother is a privileged version of motherhood that has never been the norm for most women and that for most of history, women have needed to work to sustain their families. At times, such as during the Great Depression of the 1930s or even today, the financial pressures have been such that women have chosen (or rather, have been economically forced) to forego motherhood. Here, Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) and Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) are provided as examples of women who chose their work and career instead of pursuing motherhood.

The author’s focal point in this chapter is how the difficulties of being both a worker and a mother have pushed some women into feeling the need “to have fewer [children] or none at all.” To increase fertility rates, women’s participation in the workforce needs to be supported, including with “generous maternity leave policies, prenatal and postpartum support, free day care, and shorter workdays for nursing mothers.” While I completely agree with this sentiment, it felt like the chapter’s intention was, again, to focus on helping childless women have children rather than on their lives as women without children.

Chapter 4: “Because of the planet”

This chapter is an exploration of the environmental and ethical concerns that people have expressed in relation to creating a new life and the dangerous drift that can occur when those ideas become contaminated by xenophobia, eugenics, and racism.

It can be difficult to approach such a sensitive subject but the author chose a balanced way to do so. We start with Stephanie Mills, who publicly declared in 1969 that she would remain childless for environmental reasons. In the 1960s, growing concerns over the environmental harm that humans have caused caught the public’s attention thanks to books such as Silent Spring (1962) by the childless environmentalist Rachel Carson, and The Population Bomb (1968), by Paul and Anne Ehrlich (who became parents after an accidental pregnancy).

While the ethics of having children are still being debated today, including by Meehan Crist (herself a mother), the author shows that these types of concerns aren’t new and highlights the Malthusian and Neo-Malthusian theories that grew popular (even with people who had children already) in the 19th century. Importantly, the excesses and dangers of those theories (including forced sterilization campaigns) are also discussed in detail in this chapter. I found this especially crucial because there seems to be a resurgence, especially in some online communities, of certain arguments that draw from or drift toward extremist positions.

Chapter 5: “Because we can’t”

Content warning: infertility, failed IVF, suicidal ideation

This chapter obviously deals with infertility, a sensitive subject that has always been part of women’s lives. Going back to the Bible, the author examines three matriarchs: Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, who all long for children and, after suffering from childlessness, eventually become mothers. The grief and anguish over infertility can even push some women to suicidal ideation, as seen in the diary of the 19th century Sally Bliss.

This chapter also takes an incisive look at the IVF and fertility treatment industry which generates billions of dollars from hopeful potential parents, with a high cost and little guarantee of success. Brigitte Adams, the “poster child for freezing your eggs” in 2014, directly experienced this when none of her eggs yielded a successful pregnancy.

The history and ethics of artificial impregnation, IVF, and adoption are all discussed in this chapter, as well as the history of women being blamed by doctors and scientists for the couple’s infertility.

Countering one historian’s criticism that society’s general assumption is that all women without children should be “pitied as barren,” the author ends the chapter by asking: “how many women are assumed to be joyfully, intentionally childfree when they want nothing more than to be mothers?” As a decisively childfree woman, I’m uncomfortable with trying to shift the narrative back toward seeing women without children as inherently burdened, especially since society’s acceptance of women without children (by choice or circumstance) has been and continues to be limited, even if it has improved in the last couple of decades.

Chapter 6: “Because we want other lives”

This chapter will resonate with those who have intentionally chosen to remain childfree, as it explores the history of the National Organization for Non-Parents (N.O.N.), founded by the childfree advocate Ellen Peck and the regretful mother Shirley Radl in 1972, childfree advocate Marcia-Drut Davis‘ candid (but disastrous to her personal and professional life) 60 Minutes interview in 1974, and the work of Karen Malone Wright, founder of the NotMom summit in the 2010s (an inclusive space for those who aren’t mothers, whether by choice or not).

The author also takes this opportunity to go back through time and look at some historical women without children, including Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), renowned abbess and mystic, and Christina of Markyate (c.1096-c.1155), who refused to consummate the marriage she was forced into, fled her home, and lived as a religious recluse until the marriage was annulled, at which point she continued to live, more openly this time, a religiously devoted life.

Larger movements that promoted non-procreation are also mentioned, such as Shakers, founded in the 18th century by Ann Lee (a mother whose children had all died in infancy).

While only a small percentage of people without children are voluntarily childfree, this acknowledgment that living without children can be a real choice is appreciated.

Conclusion: “And if you’ll forgive me for asking, why should we?”

In this conclusion, the author looks back at how she first envisioned this book: “I originally wanted to write about the value and accomplishments of women without children […] the choices they made, the lives they lived, and the things they accomplished.”

I wish she had written that book.

While the author seems to believe that it would have only added fuel to the conflict between mothers and non-mothers, I deeply believe that you can celebrate women without children without attacking mothers.

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