Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness 
by Elaine Tyler May.
Basic Books, 318 pp., $24, June 1995, 0 465 00609 4
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Mothers in Law: Feminist Theory and the Legal Regulation of Motherhood 
edited by Martha Albertson Fineman and Isabel Karpin.
Columbia, 398 pp., £12.95, June 1995, 9780231096812
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What about Us? An Open Letter to the Mothers Feminism Forgot 
by Maureen Freely.
Bloomsbury, 224 pp., £15.99, October 1995, 0 7475 2304 5
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Kidding Ourselves: Breadwinning, Babies and Bargaining Power 
by Rhona Mahony.
Basic Books, 277 pp., $23, June 1995, 0 465 08594 6
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Having a baby is such an impediment to American women I used to wonder why they didn’t go on strike: ‘No equality, no kids!’ It may be that something like that is happening in those countries where family structure and masculine attitudes are in radical conflict with women’s desire for emancipation. Catholic Italy and Spain, of all places, have the lowest fertility rates in the world today; and in Japan, where women typically lose their jobs on marrying and motherhood is a full-time and often rather lonely business, young women are increasingly reluctant to get married at all. But while American women may be getting more sceptical about marriage, their devotion to motherhood remains strong. They may have fewer children than their mothers did (2.05 was the 1993 average) and they may have them a bit later, but a full 88 per cent of women who turned 45 in 1995 are mothers. And this generation (my own) was the first to have wide, if uneven, access to modern contraceptives and legal abortion, and to books and articles and ads touting the childless – make that ‘childfree’ – life.

Today, books like Ellen Peck’s The Baby Trap (1971) seem as dated as bell-bottoms and go-go boots (‘a Minnesota lawyer I know, married for ten years with no children, “dates” his wife; they live together in a fun-fun lifestyle that is close to that typified in Playboy magazine’). Although some demographers predict that one in five women born between 1956 and 1972 will never have children, most of them by choice, the intentionally childless are once again practically invisible. Instead, the media offer up endless variations on the theme of eager, even desperate, motherhood: the infertile, pursuing conception at any price; lesbian mothers and co-mothers, seeking social and legal recognition of their parental status; single mothers, including the famous ‘welfare moms’, who are currently blamed by politicians of both parties for every national ill from crime to deficit. The news teems with bizarre reproduction stories: middle-aged women giving birth to their own grandchildren, widows using their dead husbands’ sperm to bear posthumous babies, divorcing spouses battling over custody of embryos frozen in happier days. Monster-mother stories are equally popular: South Carolina’s Susan Smith, who narrowly escaped the death penalty last year after drowning her two small sons and claiming they’d been kidnapped by a black man; New York’s Awilda Lopez, whose alleged torture and murder of her six-year-old daughter Elisa Izquierdo became a holiday-season media spectacular.

The current fixation on maternity has a long history. ‘We are a nation obsessed with reproduction,’ writes Elaine Tyler May in Barren in the Promised Land. According to May, a professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota, the childless have had a hard time in the New World from the word ‘go’. From the Puritans, who regarded ‘barrenness’ as evidence of God’s disfavour and disproportionately charged older childless women with witchcraft, through the 19th and 20th-century eugenicists with their fears of ‘race suicide’, to the contemporary stereotype of childless couples as materialistic ‘Dinks’ (double income, no kids), the majority voice has always been pro-natal. But only the right sort of people were supposed to be fruitful and multiply: blacks during slavery, but never after it; native-born whites but not immigrants; the respectable but not the ‘dissolute’, ‘degenerate’ or, to use today’s language, the ‘underclass’. All these notions, of course, are still in circulation, shaping debates about immigration, affirmative action, poverty, welfare, abortion, working mothers, female professionals, ‘family values’. The respectful attention given to Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve shows that they are anything but discredited among the so-called cultural élite.

A spirited storyteller, May has uncovered a wealth of unfamiliar lore. We learn of black women slaves who refused to be ‘bred’ by their masters; ‘feeble-minded’ (that is to say, sexually adventurous and poor) girls and young women put into mental hospitals and kept there until they agreed to sterilisation; Indian tribes virtually wiped out thanks to federally funded involuntary sterilisation programmes that lasted well into the Seventies. She recounts how sperm donation was invented in 1884 by the prominent Philadelphia physician William Pancoast, who inseminated a chloroformed and totally unsuspecting patient with the semen of his ‘best-looking’ medical student, and only later informed her husband – who agreed that his now happily pregnant wife should remain ignorant rather than learn that he was the sterile one. Using pseudonyms, May quotes liberally from the letters she received from childless men and women in response to an author’s query, and these, too, are unfailingly interesting.

What does it all add up to? I’m not sure that ‘childlessness’ is the proper lens through which to look at such disparate phenomena as the Salem witch trials and in vitro fertilisation. And what does ‘Carolyn Macey’, who prefers her ‘fragile glass sculptures and light carpets’ to the ‘tough wood tables, Herculon upholstery and dark, stainguard carpet’ of homes with children have in common with the anonymous working-class woman who in an eloquent letter to the Independent in 1907 wrote that she and her husband refused to ‘breed food’ for the factories of the ruling class? Both women are ‘childless by choice’, but the meaning of the choice is radically different. As an analytical category, childlessness is piquant but weak; eugenics isn’t really about childlessness, after all, although it caused a fair amount of it: it’s about the social control of reproduction. Its relevance to ‘Lisa Brown’, unable to bear children because of repeated incestuous rape as a small child, is not immediately apparent – except insofar as both eugenicists and Lisa see fertility as women’s responsibility. As May notes, ‘barren’ is a word applied only to women, which suggests that the story of ‘childless Americans’ is another way of telling the story of American women, and maybe not the best way.

May’s thesis is that Americans are obsessed with reproduction because historically they have sought happiness in private life – a tendency which she argues is no longer counterbalanced by a vigorous public and communal sphere in which the childless can play a part. My own suspicion is that babymania has always been with us; if there’s been a genuine increase in recent years – as opposed to, say, delayed childbearing on the part of the professional classes – I’d chalk it up to infertility medicine, which despite its modest success rate offers just enough hope to prevent closure of the issue: there’s always another treatment, another doctor, another drug. It’s evident from what many of May’s correspondents say that the more time, money, pain, effort and tears a patient invests, the harder it is for her to cut her losses and walk away. As the sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman has noted, infertility, formerly an act of God or fate, now looks deceptively like a choice, a perverse refusal of medical help.

How much of May’s account is particular to America? The lack of comparison with other countries is troubling. The marginalisation of childless women, the channelling of their energies into good works, the castigation of educated middle-class women for failing to reproduce, the assumption that infertility is women’s fault – these are hardly unique to the United States. Have Americans historically been more likely than the British or the French to seek happiness in what George Washington, the childless Father of his country, called ‘the quiet walkways of connubial bliss’? Aren’t we talking about the invention of domesticity, privacy and the modern state? It does not inspire confidence in May’s breadth of reference that she refers to a 1787 illustration (‘Ubi Panis, et libertas, ibi Patria’) from de Crévecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer as ‘an illustration of Manifest Destiny: fertility symbolises European settlement and expansion. Note the men clearing the wilderness and the woman reproducing the white race.’ In fact, the men are performing a circle dance and the breastfeeding woman surrounded by chubby toddlers is plainly wearing an Indian feather headdress and a tobacco-leaf skirt. She is not a European mother discharging her racial duty, but Columbia, the New World, whose abundance of milk and honey (or bread and liberty) is symbolically represented here as the Rousseau ideal of natural motherhood.

A real-life Native American or First Nation mother would find herself on the receiving end of a very different set of stereotypes, of course, especially if custody of her children was at issue. The obliviousness of Canadian courts to the difficult lives of First Nation women is set out in painful detail by Marlee Kline in her contribution to Mothers in Law: Feminist Theory and the Legal Regulation of Motherhood. Mutatis mutandis, the same point is made through out the volume: mothers who do not correspond to the romanticised middle-class white ideal – who are poor, non-white, unmarried, lesbian, on welfare, or whose lives strike child-welfare workers and judges as insufficiently child-focused – do not often get a fair day in court. Thus, to cite one example, a judge may see frequent moves, occasioned by poverty or the attempt to escape a violent partner, as irresponsible ‘lifestyle choices’. The picture of child welfare and custody law presented in this volume is virtually the opposite of that given by the media, in which the biological tie trumps every rational consideration.

As the subtitle suggests, the focus of the collection is on the way the law controls women through the institution of motherhood. Analysing New Jersey’s recent welfare makeover – in which women on welfare are denied increases on the birth of subsequent children but are allowed to keep more of their earnings if they marry as long as the husband is not the father of their children – Nina Perales gives the most detailed account I’ve seen of the ways in which punitive ‘reforms’ are tailored to the stereotype of black women as lazy, lascivious ‘matriarchs’, and of Latinas as lazy, lascivious child-women who need to be coerced away from childbearing and into marriage. M.M. Slaughter shows how the law enforces and sustains the disadvantaged economic position of women by accepting and exaggerating the division of the labour force into breadwinners, typically male, and child-raisers, typically female. Only full-time breadwinners can be Ideal Workers, protected by law. Thus unemployment insurance and pensions are reserved for workers with a steady commitment to a single job, and unavailable to those with a discontinuous pattern of employment, typically women with children and other family responsibilities. Formal equality or gender neutrality does not really affect these biases: men and women are too differently situated to start out with, and the law encodes these differences in ways that favour men. To take one example, the absent father who pays no child support is treated as non-existent, and certainly not legally culpable, should the mother be charged with child neglect; but if that mother seeks to transfer custody to her mother, his paternity suddenly becomes relevant and allows him the right to interfere.

The feminism on display in Mothers in Law is the kind that emphasises sexual difference, rather than the kind that emphasises gender similarity and puts its money on a gradual convergence of roles. This is not surprising: Martha Fineman, the collection’s co-editor, is also the author of The Neutered Mother and the Sexual Family, a much discussed book which proposes redefining the family in terms of cross-generational dependency rather than the sexual affiliation of a couple – for Fineman, a single mother and her children are a complete family. It is a radical suggestion which would mean the end of efforts to tie single fathers to their children and could weaken the legal position of divorcing fathers. But it bears a close resemblance to the world in which we actually live. The law may indeed be biased in favour of fathers, but in order to reap its benefits a man would have to want them, and the large majority of single and divorced fathers seem not to be interested in playing more than a symbolic role in their children’s lives. Certainly more children would be brought up in reasonable circumstances if the law treated the mother-child dyad as a viable unit rather than a defective, degenerate one. But there would be costs as well, which Fineman underplays: for children, who often suffer greatly when their fathers drift away; for those women who want men to share more equally in domestic life.

The tacit assumption behind these essays is that women who don’t fit the patriarchal model are in rebellion against it. I wonder how true that is. Plenty of single mothers would love to marry – and in fact do marry at some point in their lives. Unless their husbands are cruel or dangerous, most divorced mothers want their former husband to be involved with the children. The poor single mothers of Mothers in Law are most often portrayed as stalwart care-givers, doing their best in terrible circumstances. While this may be true, it skirts the question whether, in some cases, becoming a mother may not itself be an obeisance to sexism. When a teenage girl gets pregnant because to use birth control would be to admit that she’s sexually active, and has a baby because her mother would have a fit if she chose abortion, and keeps the baby, thus consigning herself to years of low-wage labour and dependence on boyfriends and relatives, because to surrender it for adoption would mark her as a selfish, unwomanly woman – it seems to me she’s as much in thrall to patriarchal values as any Fifties housewife. The dominant beliefs of a culture operate not only on individuals, but within them, and to see as rebels those who fail to meet social norms is often too romantic.

If everything you knew about mothers in late 20th-century America came from Mothers in Law, you would conclude that their position is dire indeed. The book is a useful corrective to the bland optimism of the kind of feminism which holds that all barriers are now down and your life is Up to You, but it’s not surprising that a collection of essays by lawyers, who by profession deal with the grimmer side of life, should accentuate the negative. Has there really been no significant increase in female freedom in the last quarter-century, but only a reconfiguration of the means and terms by which women are ‘regulated’? Kate Harrison’s ‘Fresh or Frozen: Lesbian Mothers, Sperm Donors and Limited Fathers’ argues persuasively that lesbian couples who use sperm from a known donor (the ‘fresh’ option) are unfairly vulnerable should that donor subsequently discover paternal feelings. But how frequently does this happen? Often enough to keep legal scholars busy, and give lesbian mothers sleepless nights. Still, the very fact that women can have babies outside marriage thanks to donated sperm represents a radical break with the patriarchal past. We are light-years away from Dr Pancoast and his anaesthetised, forever ignorant patient and, indeed, from almost the whole subsequent history of artificial insemination, which was tightly controlled by doctors, reserved for married women who met those doctors’ idiosyncratic views of maternal fitness and had their husbands’ consent, and performed under conditions of secrecy and technical mystification. Similarly, welfare is indeed intrusive, but it also permits women to make choices that would otherwise be closed to them: to keep their babies, to leave abusive partners, to stay at home with their children. For all its humiliating aspects, welfare gives women more leverage in the family and in the workplace than they would have without it, and that’s why the family-values crowd wants to get rid of it.

Some things, however, do not change: the gender division of labour within the home, for instance. If, as documented in Mothers in Law, even women lawyers cannot negotiate the equal sharing of childcare and domestic chores, what hope for the rest of us? Maureen Freely, the American-born novelist and columnist who lives in England, touches on women’s double day in What about Us? An Open Letter to the Mothers Feminism Forgot, but mostly to blame it on, of all people, feminists. In her view, feminists hate domesticity, motherhood and anything that connects sex with reproduction, and because of that they have not won the kinds of social support that would ease the working mother’s lot. Worse, they make women like Freely, who has four children and two step-children, feel that their work in the home is not worthy of respect:

I can’t walk from one end of my kitchen to the other without querying my motives or comparing myself unfavourably with two warring tribes of ideal types. If I leave the house without clearing up the breakfast dishes, I’m a bad housekeeper. If I do clear them, I’m a pushover, because really I ought to have asked Frank. If he clears them without my asking, then I’m luckier, at least according to the latest statistics, than 97 per cent of women in this country. If I forget to thank him, I’m a shrew. If I do thank him, I’m setting up the expectation that household chores, if he does them, are favours, and not duties, and so I become my own worst enemy.

One could of course say that this is a loony criticism. Feminists are the only people who have been fighting for, or even thinking of, the kinds of measure that would help Freely out of her perplexity: daycare, flexible work arrangements, raised expectations of men in the home. It is feminists who point out the social and economic importance of ‘private’ domestic labour performed for no pay by mothers. Certainly no one else advocates expanding the definition of the good mother to include women like Freely and her friends, who have big ambitions, hot tempers and messy houses, who walk out on unsatisfactory husbands and bear children out of wedlock. Freely says she resents being ‘The Mother Object’, taken for granted on all sides. But she resents even more any suggestion that she could share out the drudgery.

I’m a mother of about Freely’s age, and I certainly don’t think feminism has forgotten me. Like many women who write books castigating the women’s movement. Freely confuses ‘feminism’ with a handful of celebrity authors. But feminism is not a bestseller list: it’s a big, messy social movement, in which the difficulties of combining motherhood with paid work, and the low value assigned to women’s work of all kinds, receive a lot of attention, although not much press.

More interesting than the question of why Andrea Dworkin doesn’t devote her days to a Maternal Respect Campaign is the issue of why mothers themselves, whether feminist or not, and fathers, too, for that matter don’t demand more attention to their needs. Freely’s most basic proposal, extending school hours to match business hours, has occurred to just about every working parent, and shows up as a hardy perennial in proposals for education reform. But the reality is that a longer school day would cost a fortune. Indeed, the organised pressures are mostly toward shorter schedules and even greater obliviousness to the needs of modern families. In New York City, for example, the teachers’ union recently won itself a February holiday dubbed, with remarkable chutzpah, ‘Kids’ Week’. Since no alternative services are provided, hundreds of thousands of working parents, many low-income single mothers, must now scramble for child-care or bring their children to work. To reverse the priorities that allowed this to occur, despite much parental fury, would take a lot more than an article by Naomi Wolf.

Could ‘feminism’ address itself more attentively to mothers? Sure. I’d love to see a Million Mother March for European-style benefits. The problem is not so much, as Freely thinks, that the movement has skipped our generation to focus on issues Freely thinks (wrongly) of concern only to the young, like date rape and sexual harassment. It’s that the progressive social reforms that would ease the double day are expensive, and fly in the face of the larger trend to cutbacks and privatisation. The women’s movement is just strong enough to make a case, often successful, for the expansion of individual liberties: it hasn’t been able to do much for the re-ordering of social priorities, a much tougher job, especially in America with its dislike of ‘big government’ and ‘high taxes’. The only thing that can change this situation is activism on a grand scale. It is hard to see how Freely, who seems to blame Kate Millet and Gloria Steinem for every unresolved conflict in her life, is going to forward that goal.

Rhona Mahony’s Kidding Ourselves: Bread-winning, Babies and Bargaining Power locates Freely’s problem squarely in the unequivocal division of labour in her home. When Freely alternately grumbles about her role as chief cook and bottlewasher and insists she wouldn’t have it any other way, what she is really saying is that she can’t have it any other way: her Batna (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) is low, her threat point (ability to make a credible threat to leave) is high. Many things combine to weaken her bargaining power in the relationship, some of her own doing, like her choice of a literary rather than scientific major in college, her low-paying line of work and her many children; others beyond her control, like her age, a.k.a. ‘the beauty problem’, and the generally higher status of men. Bluntly put, a woman in Freely’s position probably needs her mate a little more than he needs her. Since she cannot become a biochemist or a doctor, she could do worse than to look over the strategy suggestions, complete with graphs and tables, offered by Mahony, a lawyer and games-theory aficionado. Perhaps if she stopped ‘gatekeeping’ – insisting that household tasks be done her way or not at all – Frank would be more likely to pitch in. Or she could give herself a ‘commitment mechanism’, like a teaching job or a big deadline or an out-of-home office, that will externally reinforce her desire to off-load chores and raise her Batna too. She could try ‘moral language’ and appeal to fairness and love. Or she could just throw a tantrum, which seems more her style.

The seamless way in which Kidding Ourselves combines a Nietzschean dissection of marital power relations with the sunny optimism of a self-help manual is very American and a little strange, but that women get less out of marriage because they need it more is an important insight. Does it follow that if women need marriage less they’ll get more out of it? Since self-help can only do so much for women who have saddled themselves with low Batnas, Mahony’s main hope is that future generations of girls will avoid their fate: they’ll ‘train up’ in school by taking lots of maths and science, go into non-traditional high-paying fields, and ‘marry down’. Gender equality will be achieved, then, not when the roles of all men and all women converge and everyone shares and shares alike, but when half the good jobs are held by women, and half the primary child-raisers are men; when, in other words, men and women are equally likely to find themselves exploited by their mates.

The problem is that this is basically a book for the professional élite. Since, as Mahony notes, people rarely marry outside their social class and education level, where are the new masses of female engineers and surgeons going to find comparable numbers of low-Batna men who are educated, reliable and interested in playing marital second fiddle for life? That is exactly the way of life Mahony warns women against. Why should men like it any better? There’s a grain of good sense in Mahony’s advice that women should see themselves as breadwinners, like ‘Amy’, the Aids researcher who links up with ‘Dave’, the computer-music composer and domestic gem. But from what I’ve seen of artists, writers and other male professionals, the ones who choose high-Batna women think their own Batna is higher still, whatever the tax forms or the critics say. They’re not, like Dave, content to be poor and unknown full-time fathers. They’re angry, depressed and jealous of their wives who both support them and do all the housework.

Preparing females to become wives and mothers goes much deeper than the pressures and expectations that steer girls out of science and into social work. It means teaching them that they are the contingent sex, the sex that needs the other’s approval, the sex with the lesser life. This self-conception, which can persist at an unconscious level in the most ardent and articulate feminist, explains why even high-Batna achieving women put up with the lioness’s share of housework – and much else besides. Mahony thinks that if men move into the domestic dependent role it will acquire more status, as things associated with men usually do. But whatever its advantages – flexible schedules, getting to know one’s children – it will always be the more vulnerable, less powerful position. Without its link to a gender-based sense of inferiority, perhaps no one would want to undertake it, especially in our age of small families, high divorce and declining wages. There’s certainly no reason to think that men in large numbers are going to volunteer for it. They’ve been taught from day one that theirs is the sex that counts.

It’s clear that if men are to partake equally with women in childraising and domesticity, more has to happen than women simply joining men in the workforce and assuming that the spirit of fairness will carry the day. One might indeed ask whether it’s entirely reasonable to expect that societies like the United States or Great Britain, which are organised around the generation of inequality of every conceivable kind, can operate according to other principles in this one area alone. Perhaps more needs to change than gender roles for gender roles to change.

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