In America today, we tend to talk about not having children as a late-20th-century phenomenon made possible by contraceptive technology and women’s liberation. If you listen to a lot of politicians and public figures, you’d think that being childless was invented by millennials as another way of shirking our duty to society.
“Today, we see a form of selfishness,” Pope Francis said last year. “We see that some people do not want to have a child.” To Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio, it is an alarming development, possibly even a sign of America’s impending collapse, “for the leaders of our country to be people who don’t have a personal and direct stake in it via their own offspring.”
But while younger women today may be liberated — or cursed, depending on your point of view — by reproductive options that were less available in the past, the decision of some to avoid motherhood is far from new. History is full of women without children: Among white women born in the last third of the 19th century in the United States, the norm was for one in five to have no children; among Black women that number was closer to one in three.
The decisions of women today are also far from baffling: Women have always considered their material lives when evaluating their reproductive options. Their economic, environmental, political and community circumstances have shaped the range of choices available to them — and whether they ultimately had many children, few children or none at all.
Remembering that non-motherhood has been common for some time — a minority experience, but hardly a rare one — matters not only as a reminder that women without children today are not alone, historically speaking. More critically, it matters because ongoing efforts to limit access to abortion and contraception are at times framed as a necessary reaction to women’s decisions to limit the number of children they bear.
For instance, Matt Schlapp, the head of the influential Conservative Political Action Coalition, reportedly suggested last May that he supported abortion restrictions not just on moral grounds but also out of concern for America’s population numbers. “If you say there is a population problem in a country, but you’re killing millions of your own people through legalized abortion every year, if that were to be reduced, some of that problem is solved,” he said. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2020, the most recent year for which such data is available, more than 620,000 legal abortions took place in the United States.)
So when Senator Vance and the pope — among many others, of course — express concern about women today not having children, they aren’t comparing us to a past that actually existed. They’re really telling us what they want us to do — or what they would force us to do — in the present.
Before women had access to hormonal birth control, Planned Parenthood clinics or the protections that Roe v. Wade offered for nearly half a century, they knew ways to try to limit births, and they used them. In ancient Rome, women used things like beeswax, olive-oil-soaked cloth or even halved lemons to block their cervices before having sex. Members of the modern anti-abortion movement often cite the Hippocratic oath, which in previous versions apparently included a prohibition against abortion, but what they don’t mention is that the Greek physician for whom it is named once recommended that an unhappily pregnant woman perform strenuous exercise until she miscarried. From medieval Europe to colonial America, women would have used an array of herbs to attempt to end pregnancies.
Across race and class, American women drastically reduced their fertility in the 19th century, with some groups averaging half as many babies at century’s end as their great-grandmothers had at its start. Nearly 16 percent of white women and 13 percent of Black women born in 1870 had no children; of all American women born between 1900 and 1910, 20 percent never did. Some of them may have experienced infertility. Some of them may have avoided heterosexual sex. But not all of them. Some of them, maybe even many of them, were actively avoiding having children.
When studies ask women today why they’re not having children, their answers are pretty consistent: They don’t have the support networks, money or jobs that would make children possible; they worry about the effects of climate change on the next generation; and some of them simply want lives that prioritize other experiences. Others may want children but are unable to have them.
Women in the past weren’t so different. Some of them didn’t have children because they lacked community support. In French colonial Canada, for example, historians have shown that the farther a woman moved from her family of origin, the fewer children she was likely to have. Women struggled to balance work and children. They experienced infertility, worried about the natural environment their children would be raised in or they wanted to live in ways that didn’t conform to social norms. Many nuns in medieval Europe became nuns out of genuine religious devotion. But for at least some of them, the fact that donning a habit was a socially acceptable alternative to the expectation of marriage and motherhood — one that allowed them to read, write and teach — must have been at least as appealing.
That isn’t to say that non-mothers in the past didn’t experience stigma. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt declared that women without children were “one of the most unpleasant and unwholesome features of modern life” and worthy of “contempt as hearty as any visited upon the soldier who runs away in battle.” Yet social pressure and scorn have not stopped a significant proportion of women, past and present, from choosing to forgo motherhood.
Opponents of abortion and contraception access today seem to assume that technology — be it the synthetic hormones in the first birth control pill, the copper wires of an intrauterine device, or mifepristone and misoprostol, the components of a modern medical abortion — disrupts what would otherwise be a state of nature, in which sex is always procreative and pregnancies always result in babies. If you make abortion illegal or birth control harder to get, according to this logic, then people will stop trying to control their reproduction.
The thing is, historically, this “state of nature” theory of sex and reproduction has likely never been true. Fertility was down and childlessness was on the rise well before the pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle patented the pill and well before Roe v. Wade made abortion a right. Long before modern birth control or 20th-century feminism, women were making very deliberate choices about when, under what circumstances and whether to have children. And there’s no reason to think they won’t continue to do so, even if abortion becomes less legal, or less safe.
For all the hand-wringing about younger women’s reproductive decisions today, it’s not yet clear whether millennials will have the highest percentage of non-mothers in American history. That badge currently belongs to the generation of women who lived their fertile years at the height of the Great Depression. The generation who became mothers during the baby boom, when fertility soared and the percentage of women without children fell sharply, is arguably more of an aberration than that of women today.
That just goes to show: Modern birth control technology and, while it lasted, the nationwide right to abortion, made it easier and safer to avoid motherhood, but they hardly gave women the idea that they might want to do so. Women have needed no help coming up with that idea all on their own for centuries.
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Peggy O’Donnell Heffington is the author of “Without Children: The Long History of Not Being a Mother.” She teaches history at the University of Chicago.
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