When I was a kid my sisters and I had packs of kiddie playing cards. Alongside Snap and Happy Families, one set was called Old Maid. The illustration on the Old Maid card – the one no one wanted to end up with – was a bespectacled, fusty woman with a Miss Moffatt hat and a ball of knitting wool. You get the picture. This woman, in the parlance of 2015, is ‘socially infertile’.
Throughout history the way we have referenced women who don’t have children has pointed to such images of diminishment and lack – the asexual, the infertile, the socially redundant. You don’t have to be dedicated to the study of words in the world to see that the language we use to describe women without children shapes how we think about those women in society. It cuts both ways: the language we use is shaped by the social realities of time and place while at the same time that language feeds back in to shape that time and place. It’s a classic reinforcing syndrome. As long as we continue to talk about on the shelf spinsters and childless women, the more we embed the perception that shoves women who don’t have children into pitiful pigeonholes. And as anyone who has spent any time with any women who are childfree by choice or circumstance will know, the stories of these women are far more complex, colourful, and challenging than any pigeonhole can contain.
So catch 22, right? Childfree women are always going to end up tagged as lesser one way or the other? Wrong. We need to shake off the tags and look at the reality of our lives. Language is a living thing and change it does and change it will in this case. Why? Because women and society have changed. The social reality – if this really does still need to be stated – is that women’s social-worth is no longer predicated on whether or not we can bear children to carry on an aristocratic line or provide hands to till the fields. Society has progressed and so have we, women and men. We have choices and opportunities previous generations did not, including the-never-to-be-understated-in-importance advances in reproductive technologies and the law in the 1960s that allowed women to freely control their fertility for the first time. We now have a choice about when and if we have children. Our choice. Nobody else’s.
So how do we shake free of the baggage that we have inherited in the way we talk about childfree women? Should we try, as Kate Bolick has done to reclaim the word ‘spinster’? It’s a thoughtful and spunky effort on Kate’s part. But bitter battles over words used in many political spheres show it’s not so simple or straightforward to rescue language from the weighty sea of history.
Should we go down a politically correct route, where we sensitively attempt to describe the social and economic phenomena of 21st-century women who delay trying for a child so long – while they establish a career, find the right partner, wait to buy a house, travel the world etc. etc. – that their fertility falls off a cliff. ‘Socially infertile’ is one such term being touted. Frankly, I detest this term. Why? Well, where to start? It smacks of the socially unacceptable, with a creeping suggestion that women have done something wrong or are victims of a nasty cultural virus wafting through the social ether. It creates a relationship between lack of social skills and judgement and infertility, which is a medical and biological condition. In a nutshell, it is as a mealy-mouthed and disingenuous way of pseudo-medicalising the diversity and complexity of women who are without children. That’s not what tlfw is about and after this article, we won’t be tagging any others with the ‘socially infertile’ term.
For me such terms blindside our own stories. As well as reducing the vibrancy and complexity of society and our social relations to a clinical cause and effect, ‘socially infertile’ pathologises our own stories. Yes, social circumstance may conspire against a woman being able to make a clear choice about whether or not they want children before biology becomes decisive. But there are many stories that get women to that point, with different paths taken, wonders seen, sadness experienced, joys had. We should not reduce all of that to such a cloying term as socially infertile. And we should never forget that many women early in their lives make a clear and determined choice not to have children and are very happy with that choice.
In my book, we should just tell it as it is and let our stories flow for those we trust and want to share with.
I am a woman without children. It’s as simple and complex as that. Buy me a pint some time, and if I like you and I want to, I might tell you my own story.
We welcome your comments on the discussion of the term socially infertile. Don’t forget you can leave them below. There is also a discussion happening on The League of Fabulous Women forum