The Market for Barren Women
Childlessness is not always by choice, but neither is it entirely by chance.
We don’t talk about barren women anymore. We may refer to “single” women, or “childless” women or even, particularly in statistical contexts, “infertile” women, but the term “barren,” with its connotation of waste, tragedy, and emptiness, seems to have slipped the linguistic sieve.
I read an article by a barren woman this week. Titled “Not By Choice,” she chronicled the tragedy of her unfulfilled desire for marriage and a family—the window for which, at 50 years old, has now closed.
That barren woman is Melanie Notkin, author of the bestselling books Savvy Auntie and Otherhood, about the plight of childless women who have not, or have not yet, created the family they desire, presumably due to no fault of their own. In her article this week, Notkin compared her story with that of another woman, “Lisa,” who attributed the achievement of a marriage and children to her own cunning. To Notkin’s view, this is impossible: “We plan; God laughs.”
This may be the view of Notkin, and the popularity of her books suggests it is also the view of millions of American young women, who, yes, desire marriage and children, however they pretend otherwise. A record number of these Americans are reaching 40 years of age without a ring, and menopause without having conceived a child, according to new research from Pew.
But recent history suggests it is more than just bad luck, or even exclusively bad choices, that have found a whopping quarter of the United States’ population under the age of 40 unmarried. Indeed, it is to the advantage of the ruling class, and specifically the Democratic Party, that American women remain unmarried.
This was the clear implication of a recent study at the University of Michigan, which demonstrated what many have been arguing for years now, that the gender war almost perfectly parallels the partisan divide in American politics, with men on the right and women on the left. Yet, as Conn Carroll rightly pointed out at the Washington Examiner, the deepest divide between Democratic and Republican voters is not sex, but marriage. Married men vote Republican with a 20 percentage point gap over those who vote Democratic. Unmarried men skew Republican by a much smaller 7 percent, while married women lean right by a notable 14 points. Who, Carroll asks, is keeping Democrats competitive? The answer, of course, is unmarried women.
The Democratic Party knows this; it is one reason all the major Democratic PACs donate multiple millions of dollars to Planned Parenthood each year, and plaster the faces of women on all of their marketing. It has influenced the left’s decision to push hard in favor of shoppable family arrangements such as egg harvesting and freezing, surrogacy, and even artificial wombs, which allow women to believe family can be put on hold and assuages their worry—because they do worry, behind closed doors and to other women—that pursuing a career will kneecap their chances at future motherhood. It has encouraged the left’s judicial activism, too, in seeking to redefine marriage until the institution has less legal hold on either party than a rental car contract, and certainly less insurance. (We should not forget who passed the first no-fault divorce law, however, lest we think the rest of the ruling class is not complicit in this change.)
It is not so much that women are liberal, then, as that they are unmarried, which still mostly means childless. Keeping them unmarried has proved to be an easier task than one might wish. For many, the desire for the loving attention of a spouse, while never replaced, may be temporarily attenuated by proxies, especially social media clout and career success. Their desire to create life, too, is instead channeled through other creations: curated feeds, a stylish apartment, creating new systems at work or forming organizations to promote the causes they care about.
For their romantic wishes, women may find sex without apparent consequences, thanks to over-the-counter birth control and widespread abortion access. Female friendship, too, has fared far better than that of men in our era of social isolation. And for the rebel who, after all this, still has the nerve to desire male companionship, a dating pool full of Deplorables (who, increasingly, make less money than they did previously and generally hold more conservative views than her) will quickly cure her. If she’s truly desperate for a baby, she can buy one from a Ukrainian surrogate for the price of a below-average American salary.
The gradual degradation of American men is no small aspect of this, a phenomenon in which both parties of the ruling class are to blame. His inability to provide for his family on his income alone makes marriage and children economically riskier for women where it was once clearly beneficial. The modern view of marriage as existing for individual happiness, rather than as a covenant that demands the fulfillment of certain duties and promotes human flourishing, also certainly helped lay the foundation for our current political condition.
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But there is a reason that barrenness, chosen or otherwise, has been considered a tragedy for most of history. At once commonplace and unnatural, it both exists in every generation and also represents a knot in the natural processes of the female body. Whether that knot is caused by biological turmoil or, as in Notkin’s case, by a lack of opportunity, in both instances the woman is unable to put to use a primary feature of her design. Which is to say, the tragedy of the barren woman is not only the judgment of her peers or the sorrow of her own heart, but also like that of the blind man, who never sees the sun.
Many women know this instinctively. This is why Notkin’s books sell. It is also why we see women behaving desperately when they reach a certain age and have not found a husband or had a baby, such as those women featured in the New York Times’ recent true-crime style podcast The Retrievals. Undergoing painful and dangerous egg-harvesting procedures, in vitro fertilization, and high-risk advanced maternal pregnancies, sometimes without any father in the picture, are extremes that have begun to seem almost normal to a woman who wants to know she tried everything before giving up on nurturing a child who is flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone.
So long as a maiden forgets about becoming a mother, so long as she never knows the life-changing love of her own child, she may continue to believe this modern world is for the best. The female disposition toward greater security, not harmful in itself, inclines her to beget a nanny state, the “devouring mother,” absent the security of a husband and provider. The women who still want a family, meanwhile, are thrown under the bus with the rest of them, or perceived by the Democrat-led ruling class as a threat. Their barrenness is certainly not by choice, but it is also not by chance.