How We Have Yet to Change

Some days it’s hard to know if we’re living in 2010 or 1985.

The jacket copy of Gail Collins’ book, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, assures readers they “will be startled.” That’s true. The book is chock full of anecdotes and insights chronicling how women’s roles and attitudes about women have changed. What could be explored further, though, are opinions that have yet to change, or where bias or, worse, bigotry still exist.

Collins devotes some ink to the stigma once associated with being a single woman — quoting a successful attorney who described a time when “society dictated that a woman unmarried had no place and was a failure.”

Noticeably absent is discussion about the prejudice women without children have consistently faced, whether in biblical or more modern times. At best we’re overlooked.  I offer up as Exhibit A the colorful banners proclaiming, “It’s a Mom’s World,” which greeted me when I walked into a large grocery store chain this weekend. The proclamation came home with me plastered on the outside of the paper grocery bag. (Yet another reason for me to keep my recycled grocery bags at the ready!)

More than dismissed by marketing or ad campaigns (and there are many playing the mom card), those without children are routinely held up as selfish, unnatural or incapable of empathy.  As recent proof, one has only to look at reporting on Australia’s new prime minister Julia Gillard. A Toronto Star story noted:

Gillard, 48, has long been attacked by the Liberal opposition (in Australia,Liberals are the main right-wing party) for not starting a family. One Liberal senator said she was unfit for leadership because she is ‘deliberately barren.’ A Liberal frontbencher claimed she couldn’t ‘understand the way parents think’ because she has no children.

Closer to home there have been regular slams against powerful or high-achieving women — from former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to new Supreme Court Justices Sonya Sotamayor and Elena Kagan — for lacking motherhood street cred. Lisa Hymas of Grist highlights “the mean take” from women and men questioning whether women without children have what’s needed to be effective, or whether they’re adequate role models:

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In a piece in The Washington Post entitled “The Supreme Court needs more mothers,” Ann Gerhart wrote,

Motherhood offers a one-word verifier. It signals a woman with an intensity of life experiences, jammed with joys and fears, unpredictability and intimacy, all outside the workplace.

[I]t’s important not just to have lots of women in positions of political power, but to have lots of women with kids.

Hymas goes on to write: “I’m not sure why ‘feminists’ are parroting Sarah Palin’s Mama Grizzly pablum, but the feminism I want to be part of embraces and sticks up for all women, including the nearly 20 percent of us who don’t have children, whether by choice or circumstance.”

Amen, sister!

Collins’ book covers lots of territory about reproductive rights and freedom as well as advances for mothers — married or single — but she only mentions infertility twice, first in relation to chlamydia, and then about the increase in media coverage — “suddenly stories on infertility seemed to be everywhere” — after a 1982 New England Journal of Medicine study revealed a precipitous decline in fertility after age 30.  Collins noted the growth of IVF programs went from two in 1980 to 192 in 1990. Surprisingly, there’s nothing about the emotional, physical and financial costs associated with infertility or the lack of support for women grappling with its effects.

We’ve come a long way from the days when women were weighed to qualify and keep a “stewardess” job or needed a father or husband’s permission to apply for a credit card. Unfortunately, in 2010, women diagnosed with infertility still find themselves in an environment that led Self magazine to ask (with infertility striking one in eight American couples) “why are so many of us hiding this struggle from our friends and family?”

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Seems not much has changed since 1985 when the publication New Scientist wrote, “Time to Break Down Taboos about Infertility.

Infertile couples find it difficult to talk of their problem, because of their feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy, and the rest of us steer away from the area because we feel uneasy and may confuse fertility with sexuality.

…to the large number of couples who are afflicted….these individuals feel excluded from society, feel that their problem is not well understood by the fertile majority and often feel bitter and resentful about the inadequate medical resources.

There’s lots of material for a sequel to Gail Collins’ excellent book. It could be titled: How We Have Yet to Change.

Pamela Tsigdinos

Writer, blogger and, oh, yeah, infertility survivor. My memoir, Silent Sorority, tells the whole story. There's a movie in there somewhere. Given the quirkiness needed to relate it all I'm thinking Jennifer Lawrence would be a good fit.

  1. mrs spock

    I can’t help but feel sympathetic for the women who remain silent- even though I do not do so by a longshot – whenever I read the comments left by readers of the recent media coverage. Nothing like being called selfish, or accused of obtaining children at a clinic like they were a Coach bag, or accused of destroying the environment by contemplating parenthood. Never mind that when these people demand adoption instead, there are still a million behind them accusing adoptive parents of buying children, taking advantage of low-income women, or being “too good” to give birth. And then never mind that there are a million people behind them ready to tell women childfree by choice or not by choice, that they are selfish, are not contributing to society, and could never have as much social value as a parent.

    And even those of us who are able to overcome our gonadal issues relatively easy have multitudes reviling us for a c-section delivery, choosing to vaccinate or not to vaccinate, working full-time and sending a child to day care, poisoning our children with formula, or choosing to be a single parent.

    I’ve decided that there just must never be such a thing as a good women.

  2. Stephanie Baffone

    Pamela,
    Thank you for standing up to be sure women like us are not only heard but respected. It pains me to read some of the quotes from others who categorically discount us and the value we contribute to society. After what you shared, the question indeed begs to be asked, “How we have yet to be changed?”
    What an uphill climb…

  3. loribeth

    I don’t know the answers, but you ask some great questions, Pamela. I can’t imagine walking into a supermarket & seeing that “It’s a Mom’s World” banner!! It is, indeed. :p

    This book is in my “to-read” pile — love Gail Collins’ NYT column, & especially her weekly “he said/she said” exchange with David Brooks!

  4. Christina Gombar

    The funny thing about the glaring absence of the mother-or-not issue in Collins’s book is that I believe she herself is single and childless, and I think I remember her speaking up in the past when Judge Sotomayor was up for the Supreme Court — when other female commentators suggested that she somehow lacked empathy because she hadn’t personally reproduced.

    I think a lot of us are so used to having our opinions be discounted, that we censor ourselves — even subconsciously, from including them in larger discussions. As a mainstream journalist, Collins is well aware which way the wind is blowing on the mother-power issue. She wasn’t about to open the can of worms of questioning the current policy of touting motherhood as the only form of womanhood that matters. That’s our job, I guess!

  5. Diane

    Great minds think alike. Before I got to the end of this post, I was thinking, “Sounds like Gail Collins’ next book needs to be about infertile women.” I hadn’t seen the Self magazine article linked above and appreciated being directed to it. The magazine article got it right.

  6. Beth

    This post left me with a lot to think about. The SELF article is one of the few things I’ve seen in the mainstream media that accurately depicts our predicament.

    However, I knew from the first paragraph that Lisa was going to get pregnant by the end of the article. And when people get their happy ending, they are less inclined to become involved. I’d love to see a follow up article about the other 39 women in that fertility clinic and hear about their choices.

    The thing that resounds to me is the lack of sympathy for the infertile and the silence on the subject. Hopefully, articles like SELF’s may educate the ignorant.

  7. Kim

    Another great post Pamela. I really do not discuss the fertility issue with most because of the deer in the headlights stare I get 99.999999 percent of the time. It is books like yours and discussions like this that will hopefully bring about change. Sometimes it feels like change moves way too slow.  Thanks for the info on Gail Collins book. I’m a Chicago girl that likes the NYT.

  8. Pamela

    Thanks, Kim!  There does seem to be a spontaneous recoiling that accompanies any mention of the word infertility … hopefully one day that won’t be the first response.

  9. Bea

    There is a way to go.

    I know I have bristled a few times this election campaign as Jules seemingly falls over herself to identify as “family-friendly” despite not having children of her own. I was perfectly willing to accept that she wasn’t anti-parent despite not actually being a parent herself, and read the party propaganda on parent-friendly policies without too much cynicism until just this week, when it somehow got to be a bit too much.

    Anyway. We’ll see how she fares by the end of tonight. It will be interesting to see how the votes go, but also whether Julia’s childlessness gets brought up again in the election night post-mortem.

    Bea

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