As National Women’s History Month gets under way, one growing group of silent sisters is chalking up its own list of advocates and role models: women who are childless or child-free.
A recent report from the Pew Research Center estimates that one in five women in the United States reaches the end of her childbearing years without having borne children, up from one in ten in the 1970s. Despite the changing demographics, the stereotype still exists of the hard-core, child-hating militant and the pathetic, unfulfilled spinster. Anyone who’s ever been told “You wouldn’t understand; you don’t have kids,” knows that a distinct line is still drawn between those who do and those who don’t have children. In the recent hearings for Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court nomination, opponents stated that her childlessness would affect her ability to pass judgment on issues relating to parents and children. Implied in this is the idea that childless women cannot think beyond their childlessness, and that education, common sense, and compassion barely smudge that line between parents and nonparents.
And yet, childless women teach our children, they lead nations, and they are instrumental in changing the world in which we all live. On December 1, 1955, a forty-two-year-old woman returning home to her husband (but no children) refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus. Rosa Parks’ actions triggered a movement that changed the views of a nation. Helen Keller opened up the world for the blind and deaf-blind, but she couldn’t have done it without the persistence and encouragement of her teacher, Anne Sullivan. Ms. Sullivan never had children of her own, and yet she was able to reach through to a child lost in a dark and silent world—something the child’s own parents had been unable to do. Susan B. Anthony worked tirelessly to secure the vote for all women, and Amelia Earhart blazed open the skies for pioneers like Sally Ride to follow. Coco Chanel changed the way we dress; Julia Child changed the way we cook; Ginger Rogers did it backward and in heels. And Oprah Winfrey changed the way we talk to one another.
These women played a vital role in shaping the world in which we live, and it’s undeniable that they all lived full and very meaningful lives, even if they never played the role of “Mother.”