Katha Pollitt

  • Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness by Elaine Tyler May
    Basic Books, 318 pp, $24.00, June 1995, ISBN 0 465 00609 4
  • 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, ISBN 0 231 09681 X
  • What about Us? An Open Letter to the Mothers Feminism Forgot by Maureen Freely
    Bloomsbury, 224 pp, £15.99, October 1995, ISBN 0 7475 2304 5
  • Kidding Ourselves: Breadwinning, Babies and Bargaining Power by Rhona Mahony
    Basic Books, 277 pp, $23.00, June 1995, ISBN 0 465 08594 6

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.

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