Inspiration for childless and childfree women

Thoughts and ideas to inspire, uplift and affirm the childless and childfree, by circumstance and by choice

non-mothers and feminism

When I read accounts of women’s choices to be childfree, I notice that many are keen to distance themselves from feminism.

“I’m not a feminist and I know that being childfree doesn’t necessarily mean being a feminist.” – Britgirl

“The softly spoken Ms Riley is outspoken on the rights of women to choose their own life paths, but she is not a feminist.”  Re Theresa Riley, author of Being Childfree in New Zealand: How couples who choose to not have children are perceived, Waikato Times ***

And then there is the almost infamous Times article by playwright, Zoe Lewis, entitled ‘Madonna syndrome: I should have ditched feminism for love, children and baking’, in which she blames feminism, very directly, for the fact that she did not prioritise the creation of a family with children.

“I want love and children but they are nowhere to be seen. I feel like a UN inspector sent in to Iraq only to find that there never were any weapons of mass destruction. I was led to believe that women could “have it all” and, more to the point, that we wanted it all. To that end I have spent 20 years ruthlessly pursuing my dreams – to be a successful playwright. I have sacrificed all my womanly duties and laid it all at the altar of a career. And was it worth it? The answer has to be a resounding no.”

I’m interested in possible intersections between feminism and non-motherhood because, in contrast with the views above, I am a feminist of the ‘loud and proud’ variety.

I think it’s probably best to define my terms carefully here. By feminism I mean:

– an understanding that gender is a significant basis of inequality between human beings
– a strong interest in addressing that inequality
– an ongoing, evolving engagement with feminist thought and its various critics

By feminism I do not mean:

– an understanding that gender is the only significant basis of inequality
– a lack of interest in other bases and forms of inequality
– an affinity with every idea ever promoted in the name of feminism

So, all that said, I think there are a few important intersections between my feminist politics and my own experience of non-motherhood:

1. Without a good deal of work done by feminists before me, I don’t fancy my chances of ever having had the opportunities that appeal to me so much more than motherhood – my independence, my education, my career, a relationship my partner and I have created on our own terms etc. I’m similarly grateful for the role feminists played in making contraception available to me.

2. Although I don’t recall childfreedom ever being discussed during my studies, I think my education (which included a good deal of feminist theory) gave me some tools that have been invaluable in thinking through and articulating my position as a non-mother.

3. A focus on the politics of motherhood in much feminist theory has made it impossible for me to think in terms of prejudice against the childfree versus an easy ride for mothers. I’m interested in thinking far more generally about laws, politics, traditions, technologies, representations, economies and attitudes that limit women’s reproductive choices, whatever those choices may be.

4. I think the way forward for feminism is for women to talk to each other about their ideas, their needs and their experiences, and this is the attitude I take to non-motherhood too. I have no interest in persuading anyone to live as I do, only to add the weight of my own experience to the validation of the idea than non-motherhood can be a beautiful and fulfilling way for a woman to live.

If you would like to read some other posts that have touched on feminist themes, you might enjoy this critique of a book which I felt was hugely problematic from a feminist viewpoint, or this discussion of the lack of a unified view among non-mothers.

But in the meantime, how about you? Do you identify as a feminist?  And do you see any relationship between feminism and non-motherhood?

***Please see the comments section where Theresa Riley explains that she was badly misquoted in the Waikato Times and is in fact very happy to be identified as a feminist!!

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29 comments on “non-mothers and feminism

  1. Nell
    April 9, 2012

    This post made me think about a recent book I read by Caitlin Moran called ‘How to be a Women’: http://www.amazon.co.uk/How-To-Woman-Caitlin-Moran/dp/0091940737/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1333965685&sr=8-1

    It covers a positive chapter about motherhood and non-motherhood.

    • olivia
      April 9, 2012

      Thanks for the reference Nell – that sounds like something I definitely need to read.

  2. Angie
    April 9, 2012

    I definitely consider myself a feminist, but I think the feminist movement, such that it exists, has to a large extent become the working mother movement. Feminism in the United States seems to have shifted from a focus on women’s rights and equality to a focus on making the workplace accommodate working mothers. I think the latter is an important aspect of feminism, and it was certainly important in the 1960’s and 1970’s when more women were entering the workforce for the first time, but I feel like non-mothers are often shut out because our lifestyle choices are not recognized and validated to the same extent as those who choose motherhood. To me, feminism should be about all women being able to make choices about work, education, marriage, family, and reproduction, with no choice being viewed as more valid than any other. I think you summed it up perfectly here – ” I have no interest in persuading anyone to live as I do, only to add the weight of my own experience to the validation of the idea than non-motherhood can be a beautiful and fulfilling way for a woman to live.” I know many women who would call themselves feminists, but who would not agree that non-motherhood can be beautiful and fulfilling.

    • olivia
      April 9, 2012

      So do I, Angie. In fact I’m aware that in some feminist circles, childfree women are regarded both as victims of patriarchy and as quitters/traitors of feminism (that is, patriarchy made motherhood so hard that we gave up our rights to fulfilment as women). I definitely understand the logic and I do support mothers’ rights, because like you I think it is choice that is ultimately important. But of course, like you, I can’t accept the premise the argument is based on – that all women would be mothers if they could because non-motherhood = unfulfillment.

  3. Re DuVernay
    April 9, 2012

    I’m definitely a feminist, and I kind of find it odd when people specify that “I’m no feminist but…” I don’t think that feminist is an insult, or at least I don’t think it should be. I think all genders should be treated as equals because I think all people should be treated as equals. I also find it a bit dismissive of the fact that, without feminism, we wouldn’t have much choice as to whether or not we want to be mothers. For a very long time women’s options were either nun, or mom. It’s like saying, “I’d never want anybody to think I’m a baker, can you IMAGINE, ugh, bakers, but thanks for the cupcake!”

    • olivia
      April 9, 2012

      Re DuVernay, I know what you mean!

      I think one of the cleverest patriarchal manoeuvres is to have turned feminism into something that women are taught to dismiss as ridiculous, dated/irrelevant, extremist, oppressive, ugly etc, before they ever have a chance to consider what it is, why it exists, what it has done and what it could do next.

      This manoeuvre has been a wonderful tool for undermining the possibility of any kind of cross-generational solidarity/education and beyond that, ensuring the complicity of new generations of women…

  4. Kaitlyn
    April 9, 2012

    I identify myself as a feminist, but I don’t see any strong connection to feminism and non-motherhood. I don’t believe feminists decide not to have children because they are feminists (i.e: third-wing feminism), but women who identify themselves as such may choose not to have children because it is an acceptiable lifestyle for them. I believe in equal rights between men and women, and I do believe that Women’s Liberation was necessary to gain equality. So, I am a proud, strong, childless feminist 🙂

  5. Mali
    April 9, 2012

    I was at university in the 1980s, and so have for all my adult life been a very proud feminist. I’ve never understood the fear some women have of labelling themselves as a feminist. I don’t see what is wrong with it, I never bought into the media’s portrayal of feminists as dungaree-wearing, man-hating feminists. I knew that feminism covered a wide spectrum of views, but that ultimately it came down to freedom and equality. But it is something I have seen in the last ten or 15 years – that young, educated women are less reluctant to identify as feminists, even though all their beliefs are consistent with feminism, and the way they live their lives would be impossible (or extremely difficult) without the hard-won gains of feminism. Feminism still matters – and it scares me that young women don’t understand that.

    I’m also a feminist who tried to have children, but couldn’t. I tried later, when I felt ready, and so could be dubbed one of those “selfish, career women who put off having children until it is too late.” But it wouldn’t have been right for me to have tried earlier, and feminism gave me the choice, and I’m very grateful for that.

    • olivia
      April 9, 2012

      Mali, my degree etc was mainly in the 2000s (I was a little late to university) and yet we seem to have arrived at the same kinds of conclusions. I must admit I share in that fear about the rejection of feminism.

      I was very interested to read the snippet of your story above and see such a different angle on a similar situation to the one Zoe Lewis wrote about. Thank you so much for explaining it like that!

  6. Beam_Me_Up_Scotty
    April 9, 2012

    I have stopped reading feminist blogs because of this dynamic – it’s become “mommyism,” just for mothers, with no thought to the childfree. Also, these blogs do tend to stink of “Let’s talk about what it’s like to be a VICTIM and wallow in our sorrow!” Not interested.
    What also concerns me is this “oppressive patriarchy” talk; Angry women are sometimes blaming their shortcomings on what they feel is a deeply ingrained male-dominated society. If they can’t live up to the standards of their job – whether the requirements be emotional, physical, mental, etc – then most likely, it is THEIR problem, not the problem of the “oppressive patriarchy.” I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist – what I am saying is that if women can’t fulfull the requirements of a job, then it isn’t the job that needs to change…it’s THEM.
    I served in the Marine Corps, in a male-dominated MOS. I was one of two women in the shop, the ONLY one on crew. Why? Because the other one claimed the job was “too hard,” and she had to be accomodated. I didn’t complain – it took about a month to build up the necessary muscle to do the job, but I did. That other woman just wanted her shortcomings (lack of initiative and unwillingness to do manual labor) accomodated. When she was told she was going to have to go on crew again, she got pregnant, which gave her a waiver.
    People need to take responsibility for their own actions, shortcomings, and personality flaws, instead of blaming it on something else. It stunts personal growth, and generally creates someone that’s uncomfortable to be around.

    • olivia
      April 10, 2012

      Audrey, your work sounds amazing and I really admire you for having met those challenges head-on. You have exactly the attitude about your own work that I aim for in mine.

      I haven’t personally heard much in the way of women playing the patriarchy card as an excuse – whenever I’ve heard it, it has seemed extremely valid to me. But I’m sure there are cases in which it’s not.

      I’ve had some issues with a kind of ‘boys club’ mentality in my own work, but nothing I couldn’t deal with and certainly nothing that impeded my progress.

  7. valkyrie5959
    April 9, 2012

    I read a lot of feminist literature after I asked my Mother in the 60’s “what is Women’s liberation?” She shrieked and warned me not to speak of such things.
    My favourite feminism quote.
    “.I myself have never been able to find out what feminism is; I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat”. (Rebecca West)
    I think the most important characteristic a person can develop after a thick skin is
    a sense of humour. I loved your post “beam me up scotty”
    I am so admiring of your serving in the Marine Corps and agree that we must own our own faults because only then can we make changes.

    • olivia
      April 10, 2012

      That is a WONDERFUL quote, valkyrie5959!

  8. rantywoman
    April 10, 2012
    • olivia
      April 12, 2012

      That was really interesting especially (I thought) the part about the different interpretations of Susan B. Anthony’s life! Thanks rantywoman 🙂

  9. Nicole
    April 10, 2012

    I consider myself to be feminist, but I do not think it has anything to do with motherhood or non-motherhood. To me, being a good feminist is supporting all women’s choices: whether it be child-free, childless not by choice, stay at home mom, working mom, women with 1 child, women with 6. And of course, i want to receive that support in return.

    I do wonder if more women who don’t have children consider themselves to be feminists. I wonder sometimes if women who walk more traditional paths don’t see themselves as feminists, which they definitely can be.

    I really love and appreciate your definition. That’s how I define it as well.

    • olivia
      April 12, 2012

      Thanks for such interesting thoughts as always, Nicole! I too would be very curious to know if there are different rates of feminist self-identification among mothers vs non-mothers…

  10. tiffanylo
    April 11, 2012

    I have never understood why women who are clearly feminists fear the “label” so much. It’s like, “I support equal rights and think that women should be able to do what they choose, but… I’m NOT a feminist!” I’ve heard it so many times and am tired of hearing the “but”. I am a proud feminist, and was raised by a feminist mom. I minored in Women’s Studies in college in the 90s, and read enough literature to remind me that ignoring or denying my connection to feminism would be denying a part of myself, my history, and my loyalty to the women who fought so hard for ME to be where I am today. And that’s to say that I have the freedom to do what I want to do in work, relationships, and life in general. I guess I do not really see much difference between the mothers and non-mothers in my life when it comes to feminism. Also, those women who identified as feminists and are now mothers are still feminists, and those who never did, still are not (though I might actually view them as such!).
    I also do not remember learning that being a non-mother was a “valid” and fulfilling way of life back in my women’s studies classes, which rather saddens me. I remember the notion that women could “have it all”, meaning career, relationship, and kids, but to me, “having it all” means having puppies in place of kids. 😉 But seriously, as a non-mother, I don’t always feel supported or validated in general. I think that the role of mother has been elevated to the level of “superhero”, which rather irks me. Yes, I do have a great deal of respect for the hard work (heck, I wouldn’t want to/be able to handle it!) women do as mothers (and men as fathers, too), and I DO think they deserve a salary or some form of compensation. But I do not think that this makes mothers any better or stronger or smarter than non-mothers, and, unfortunately, society often makes me feel “lesser than” because I am not “doing it all.”

    • olivia
      April 12, 2012

      Brilliant thoughts, tiffanylo. How I look forward to your comments :).

      • tiffanylo
        April 12, 2012

        Aw, thank you–and how I look forward to your blog posts!! They have been such a joy and inspiration to me, Olivia! You have such a brilliant and sensitive perspective. 🙂

  11. Beam_Me_Up_Scotty
    April 13, 2012

    Argh! I just came back to read the most recent posts, and re-read mine. Is it me, or did I sound a bit perturbed or overly direct? Anyway…
    I like ‘Gender equality’ better than ‘Feminism’ – even though, biologically, we are not equal. Men and women (as if gender is binary…but I’ll skip that for now) have different talents, different drives – we process things (mentally, emotionally) differently. We develop differently – even in the womb. We’re different physically – men are (generally) stronger, and women (again…generally) have a larger corpus callosum, which allows for multitasking and (again, in general) more developed language skills.
    But regardless of our strengths and weaknesses, we can work together to build something better. We cannot do this by denying our differences. Too many feminists hold on to past grudges and treat men as the enemy – and not as a partner in the creation of a better world.

    ^^^Here’s my idealist post to round out my personality. Teehee! 😉

    ~Audrey

    • olivia
      April 13, 2012

      I don’t know Audrey – I thought it was a fabulous comment! And I couldn’t agree with you more here re your point about not regarding men as the enemy – or any other group of people either, if we’re looking to build rather than tear things down.

  12. anna3101
    April 26, 2012

    I think real feminism is nothing to be ashamed of – but rather to be proud of. For me, it’s the issue of having equal rights – women same as men and men same as women. Actually, in our society it’s not always women who suffer the inequality. There is of course no law against men crying or being emotional in any way or refusing to help a woman with a heavy bag (even if it’s because of his health problems) – but the price for doing any of these is too high. Just like the price of being a woman without children or unmarried or not interested in shopping or cosmetics is too high and some decide, consciously or unconsciously, to just “go with the flow”, not to be ostracized from the society. And all of this is very sad. Squeezing real people into gender models and society-expected life paths is something feminism is against. So I am a feminist 🙂

  13. Theresa Riley
    May 3, 2012

    I’m sad at reading this – because the reporter got it WRONG. I have always been very happy to identify myself as a feminist.

    • olivia reading
      May 7, 2012

      And I’m glad to read that the reporter got it wrong (what a dreadful thing to get wrong too!) Please see the amendment above and thank you very, very much for letting me know.

      • Theresa Riley
        May 7, 2012

        Thank you Olivia. I think there can be confusion for some people who don’t understand that I’m not childfree because I’m a feminist. It’s feminism (the real one, not the twisted version some people have) that supports women being able to make whatever choice fits them and being comfortable and valued as a person.

        I was fortunate enough to have the “women can do anything” mantra repeated often as my high school was a girls’ school. Somehow that got twisted into pressure for women to do EVERYTHING (and to do it all perfectly), which is imprisoning – and we haven’t yet achieved the goal.

  14. Anne Roy
    May 31, 2012

    I am a feminist. I am a woman, what am I going to be? against my entire sex? It is a non-issue … if you are not a feminist to me you must be someone supporting the oppression of women. I married when I was 25 but made sure my husband did not want children, had he wanted any he would have had to marry someone else. I got my tubes tied when I was 29 and have never regretted it for a moment.

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