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Pope Francis’ comments on parenthood are nothing new for childfree women

Iseult de Mallet Burgess discusses the long history of sexism which sees so many women being criticised for choosing not to have children.

CW: sexism/misogyny

People who choose not to have children are selfish, according to Pope Francis – who must be something of an expert on the subject, having chosen not to have children himself. 

“Today…we see a form of selfishness,” the Pope told a general audience at the Vatican last week. “We see that some people do not want to have a child.” He specifically chastised couples who have pets but no children, something he claims “diminishes us,” and “takes away our humanity.” 

This isn’t the first time the Pope has scolded people who don’t have children. In 2014, the pontiff warned that “selfish” childfree people would eventually succumb to the “bitterness of loneliness.” 

Yet this rhetoric is nothing new for childfree people – childfree women in particular, for whom normative gender roles create inextricable links between womanhood and motherhood. 

Gender is not innate, but a culturally constructed class system in which the class of woman is fundamentally juxtaposed against and subjugated by the class of man. Central to this class system are conceptualisations of normative femininity, which are unquestionably bound to motherhood. Women’s corporeal tie to children justifies an unequal and gendered division of labour and the “naturalization” of caregiving roles for women within the domestic sphere. Queer theorists also suggest that the social and political function of children is to regulate women’s sexuality within a social order that mandates heteronormativity and procreation. 

A 2018 study documented the negative perceptions and prejudice that childfree women face: they are overwhelmingly seen as “selfish,” “dissatisfied,” and cold. Childfree women have also elicited social reactions of “disgust” and “moral outrage.” The study cites research indicating that women without children face discriminatory outcomes in occupational and medical settings. It’s common for physicians, for example, to deny a patient surgery on the assumption that a woman will change her mind about wanting children. 

We don’t have to look far to see these negative perceptions in action: former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard immediately comes to mind. Gillard endured years of sexism and misogyny for being a childfree woman in power. In 2007, former conservative senator Bill Heffernan described Gillard as unqualified for leadership because she was “deliberately barren.” In 2010, politician George Brandis maintained that Gillard was a “one dimensional” person who, because she had chosen not to have children, couldn’t possibly understand former PM Tony Abbott’s controversial argument that a woman’s virginity is a gift to give to her husband. Former Labor leader Mark Latham claimed that Gillard was “wooden” and lacked empathy because she had chosen not to have children.

Like Gillard, most childfree women are constantly expected to justify and explain themselves: to divulge their personal medical histories, to describe how the current economic climate is not conducive to child-rearing, to explain that childfree people tend to be happier than parents, to maintain that they’re not willing to become another maternal mortality statistic, to detail the gendered division of labour – when not wanting children should itself be reason enough for not having them. 

So perhaps, instead of scolding childfree couples, the Pope’s efforts would be better directed towards doing more for the secret children of not-so-celibate priests. Or towards re-examining the church’s own decidedly anti-family celibacy policies. Or towards having children of his own.  

Image: Catholic Church England and Wales/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via flickr

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