No Kidding: Academic Style

Brittany Shoot
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Last week, a good (lesbian, childfree, professor) friend sent me an article from an issue of the Palgrave MacMillian journal Feminist Review from 2003. I’ve tended to stay away from these sorts of pieces in this series because I don’t assume I’m writing for a specifically scholarly audience. That said, the article is a great overview of some dense, theoretical issues facing childfree feminist women, specifically in the scholarly research/analysis context, and I thought it was worth mentioning.

In “Vacant wombs: feminist challenges to psychoanalytic theories of childless women,” (free download!) Myra J. Hurd writes:

“The bulk of contemporary literature on childless women reveals a strong association between women and maternity as it focuses almost exclusively on determining why some women are childless, as though the answer is to be found in some demographic or psycho-social specificity. As such, childless women tend to be portrayed as white, tertiary educated, middle-class women who prefer their own careers over raising children. Indeed, childless women are often constituted as desiring to be (like) men by devoting greater time to their paid careers and rejecting motherhood as an inadequate or less valuable contribution to society. Insofar as these studies
attempt to explain childlessness, the association between femininity and sexual reproduction remains implicit.”

Now, it’s been a long time since I was immersed in theory, and I won’t pretend to understand everything Hurd dissects in this piece. But essentially, after a long deconstruction of Freud, Judith Butler, and a bit of Luce Irigaray, Hurd seems to conclude that childless women should not be defined by a definition of femininity “anchored by sexual reproduction.” She ponders whether childless women have chosen to refuse the supposedly “natural” relationship between gender and maternity. She asks whether or not childless women can be part of the feminist process of inclusion and if so, in what limited capacity if we’re all judged based on our sexual and gendered characteristics.

It’s tough to know how to wind down this series, so I picked a wild card for today. I don’t hate on theory, nor do I think it’s productive to act like academic jargon should be ignored and avoided if that’s meaningful to some (and arguably, the vehicle for some men and women to discover and embrace feminist principles). But this whole series has been about how we define our own experiences, and mine has been a bit removed from the ivory tower for a few (happy) years now. So, please join in and tell me what I’m getting wrong on this one, or why this does or does not matter to you.

Do you think childlessness warrants academic inquiry? Do you think childfree women deserve their own psychoanalyic investigations? Why do you think scholarly analysis of intentional childlessness might be beneficial to women’s studies or women more generally?

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17 Comments Have Been Posted

oh! how I wish I could post a

oh! how I wish I could post a picture of my 8-month bump with the words "this is what a feminist who works in academia and takes her career seriously looks like". Surprise! I am not white!
I believe that motherhood and how we get there and childlessness and how we get there are not points for divisive messages. It is a trap! And look where it has taken us: one of the worst parental leave systems in the world AND a total suspicion for women who chose not to have kids (what's wrong with her??? why??). Great, it looks like we can have it all!


I wish I could. . .dip this comment in gold. Because as women have to frame this issue as an either/or (can women have children? or can they take their careers seriously?) we're doing it wrong.

I have neither career nor

I have neither career nor child. Yay poverty!

The idea that childless women

The idea that childless women are so immersed in a career that they don't stop to have children is a myth from another era. The story I hear among my peers is that without the career success they don't feel secure enough to procreate and in fact my girlfriends with the biggest families are the ones with the most secure and lucrative positions.

Is the real issue whether or

Is the real issue whether or not academics have any business studying non-heterosexual populations for their own benefit?

The Drive to Procreate

My hormonal drive to procreate was very strong, as was my sex drive to and my instincts to keep my kids safe and healthy. It was the way I was made. Does that make me more feminine? It depends on how you define femininity. By most counts, I would have to say yes, but that certainly shouldn't define the feminine experience.

Perhaps the drive has a purpose and leads to better parenting. I know I can't even hear a baby crying without feeling the pull to protect her arising in my chest before I've even had the chance to think about it. I don't think men have to worry about this.

Childless women who have a bigger drive than I did to see the fulfillment of the careers (for which, perhaps they educated themselves for 16+ years) were successful in either sublimating their sexual drive or started out with less drive (or both). Perhaps in this way they are more like men. So what? Are we to take sides against each other now because we are compelled to make different choices? I remember a childless friend of mine making the point that she got over her drive (and to say that it was important to tell me so). I'm sure she imagines herself the stronger person. I could see no reason to rub it in her face that my drives were much stronger than hers, maybe by ten-fold. There was zero chance I was going to get out of my teens a virgin like she did. And my drive to have kids consumed my 20s. They WERE me.

The point of feminism isn't where each one of us falls on the graph of our sexual differences, the point is each of us has the right to chose her own path to fulfillment. Anyone who falls out of a projected norm is going to be suspect or a target for those who are afraid of the unknown (fear of other is another powerful instinct that doesn't necessarily serve our best interests).

I'm willing to bet that just like with schizophrenia and depression and good mental health, our emotional and social tendencies have more to do with biology than with psychology, but to say that makes me a 2nd wave criminal.

Viva the 3rd wave.


I don't have children or a husband. I have a mediocre career and I volunteer here and there. I don't need someone to diagnose or understand the decisions I've made with my life. Men that are wifeless and childless are looked at as powerful, masculine, untamible men that will settle down "someday" with the perfect blonde 21 year old that I'm sure will reply to this saying that she is a feminist. Can we just live without being scrutinized for the choices we've made? Good, bad, pure, or whatever your reason for not having children? Hearing about marriage, children, dating, and settling down is very 1950's, but its all I seem to hear these days. Let's use feminist power to help ladies in Japan devestated by these disasters or come together to find a deeper purpose, not to diagnose why women aren't having children.

Why do you want kids?

It seems to me that for so long, women were constrained by both the biological imperative to perpetuate the species and by (to use a broad, over-arching term), patriarchal social structures that designated reproduction as our sole purpose in life, that we as a culture still have an underlying sense that a woman's most *essential* function is to bear children, even if the demographic and social realities of our lives today actually make it undesirable for most women to be having multiple children. Since perpetuating the species is not exactly an issue right now, it makes sense that more people would be choosing not to have children. I think this is an important line of academic inquiry for feminists, though personally, I'd like to see the discussion focus less on the psychological reasons for a woman's choice not to have children (though on that note: why do we never ask a woman why she has chosen to have children, while women who choose not to have children are asked this constantly - and why is it socially acceptable to ask a woman why she doesn't have children?) and more on the problem identified in the brief quote from Hurd: the implicit association between femininity and motherhood, and the assumption that a woman who doesn't choose to have children is more "career-focused" or "manly" or is "rejecting" her role as a woman (how slippery is the slope between celebrating the amazing things our bodies can do and essentializing ourselves!). It's interesting to think about how masculinity and fatherhood are viewed - while there is certainly some association between fatherhood and virility, you don't usually hear anyone asking a man why he's chosen not to have children. I think it's vital that we break down the assumption that pervades our culture that women who don't have children are somehow less feminine than those who do, and also the assumption that the choice not to have children is somehow a deviation from a psychological norm. There's so much more to think and say about this and these thoughts are tossed off the top of my head... as a final note I'll say I agree with the commenters above that all the choices we make in our lives should be respected.

questioning motherhood as normative

I like that the quote excerpted from the article points out that generally the assumption is that women will have children, so childfree women are seen as having made a specific choice not to have children (or having fallen victim to unfortunate circumstances), and then many people question why they made that choice, which is tiresome for those of us who are childfree (by choice - I imagine it could be outright hurtful for women who are childfree not by choice). For me, not having any children is my default state, and if I were to ever have kids, that would be a specific choice to change from my normal state.

Assumptions should be challenged

I mean, it's sort of a given, but the assumption that a childless (or free) woman made her decision because of her career is sort of specious. Every decision is a lot more complex than that. For many, there are a combination of factors: economic, health-oriented, family history, etc.
It would be nice to see more childless (free) women presented in media and culture that are more than just career-driven, cold "man-like" characters, and the idea that we need more academic study might not be a terrible one.

Labels are ridiculous

For me the more important question is why are we as women allowing ourselves to be defined based on whether or not we use our uteruses? Having children is no more or less valid than not having children; it is a complex personal choice. If we don't respect the choices of our sisters, how can we possibly demand that the male half of the world respect our choices as women? Defining women in this way diminishes our gender and makes the world a worse place for it.

You can't claim "women's choice" and disregard the choice of the

Having children is less valid than not having children. This goes beyond a woman thing. It also goes beyond a blame thing. It is a prevention thing. Since no one responded to my last comment:

Neither the author nor the commenters on this blog seem to view this issue like I do, and I don't understand why. Having a child has many implications that perhaps outweigh society's "everyone's choice should be respected and not judged" line. Will you please watch this video and tell me what is wrong with the arguments in it? Why is it even ok for a person to bring someone into being without consulting them first?

Childless but value Moms

I have chosen to be childless but in no way do I see motherhood as "an inadequate or less valuable contribution to society". It is exactly because I see it as the most important contributution women make on society that I do not think I am up to that burden. Childlessnes only merits acedemic inquiry if it is equally applied to both males and females. The trouble I see inthe academic arguement is that it does not encourage one to balance both side of an issue.

Nurturing parents while meaning well perhaps are misinformed

I am the same person who linked to the inmendham video. It isn't motherhood or parenting that is less valuable. I, too value mothers and the nurturing of the children who are already here. The issue is whether or not to start a life. Here is another resource: "Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence" by David Benatar. This is a quote from his book that I really liked:

"The optimist surely bears the burden of justifying this procreational Russian roulette. Given that there are no real advantages over never existing for those who are brought into existence, it is hard to see how the significant risk of serious harm could be justified. If we count not only the unusually severe harms that anybody could endure, but also the quite routine ones of ordinary human life, then we find that matters are still worse for cheery procreators. It shows that they play Russian roulette with a fully loaded gun – aimed, of course, not at their own heads, but at those of their future offspring.

academic inquiry on the childfree

The desire not to have kids absolutely warrants academic inquiry because it goes to the heart of one of the value based engines of our society--pronatalism. There has been quite a body of research on voluntary childlessness for well over 30 years now. Research in the last ten years has been particularly interesting. One thing that has been studied is emotional well being in one's later years when you don't have kids versus if you do have kids. It has indicated that kids are not the determining factor re whether one has emotional/psychological well being in one's later years. This is just the tip of the iceberg on research that has been done, but it does need to continue (and will I believe) to continue to demonstrate that not having kids is not about something that is wrong with a person, or something they lack. It is just a matter of different desires and choices made in life toward what we think will bring us fulfillment.
Laura, author, Families of Two, http//

Why does it matter what

Why does it matter what well-bringing it bring us? What if having children is really rewarding to parents and YOU will be worse off for not having gone through the experience? Even if that was true it still wouldn't justify the act. i don't understand all this beating around the bush trying to get the psychological studies in order to convince people that they are better off not having children. It isn't about them. Why can't we all just say it?

Why analyze?

"Do you think childfree women deserve their own psychoanaltyic investigations?"

Do you mean MORE psychoanalytic investigations? It seems to me the "why" behind women not having children has been explored to death, when often the reason is very simple: we just don't want them. It's a lifestyle choice, and children are a particularly all-consuming lifestyle choice. Making the conscious decision to avoid a painful birth followed by a lifelong obligation to another person who consumes a majority of your time and money can hardly be so perplexing that it generates so much confusion.

What I would be more interested in seeing is a study of men and women who choose to have children. Is there more to it than a natural urge? Is enough thought put into it before the baby is born? Are the reasons for having children "legitimate" more often than not? How many people have children because they were abused, neglected, or unhappy children who think they can relive their lives vicariously through their children (and is that a fair reason to bring new life into the world)? Etc.

"Why do you think scholarly analysis of intentional childlessness might be beneficial to women's studies or women more generally?"

It might encourage people to view the child-free choice as just that: a choice. One of many we all make in our lives. We decide whether to go to college, whether to be lawyers or doctors or teachers, we decide whether to marry and how often, and we decide not to have children. That's really all there is to it.

If a study is going to be done on women who choose not to have children for environmental reasons, or because they have mental or physical health issues they don't want to pass on, those individuals would be the outliers, and any study on them would best be balanced by a study of those parents who had children for their own unusual reasons that lie well outside of the standard, "I just love children, love my spouse, and really want to procreate with him/her."

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