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Childless Women

Natalia J. Garland

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Two women, Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer from California, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, represent two fundamental possibilities of the female sex: to give birth to a child or not to give birth. This was made clear when, on January 11, 2007, in a Senate discussion on the Iraq war, Boxer said to Rice:

Now, the issue is who pays the price, who pays the price? I'm not going to pay a personal price. My kids are too old, and my grandchild is too young. You're not going to pay a particular price, as I understand it, with an [within?] immediate family. So who pays the price? The American military and their families, and I just want to bring us back to that fact.
[End of quote.]

Boxer's statement might be taken as an awkward mistake, an emotional digression, but Boxer has apparently made other inappropriate remarks to Rice in the past. Boxer has publicly and officially aired the private choice or condition of another woman: childlessness. Boxer did not simply say I'm not going to pay a personal price, but unnecessarily added my kids...., and my grandchild.... She made it clear that she had created her own family whereas Rice had not created an immediate family. Moreover, Boxer couched her remark within a context of caring for America's military families.

The insensitivity of the statement is shocking, but even worse are the personal and professional implications directed toward Condoleezza Rice, specifically:

  • That she is inferior in her womanhood because she does not have a child.
  • That she is incapable of empathy for the welfare of young adults.
  • That she is not qualified to make political decisions in which there is potential for life-and-death consequences.

It does not automatically follow that parenthood endows one with empathy for the child. Otherwise, there would not be fathers who commit incest on their daughters, or mothers who dump their newborn babies into the garbage can. The concept of personal price is not felt by all fathers and mothers whose children are damaged or killed.

That's because reproduction is essentially a biological process. Any fertile man can impregnate any fertile woman. Pregnancy and childbirth are female attributes. Males are involved in the origin of life, but only females can give life. And (excluding miscarriage for the sake of argument), any pregnant woman can give birth. Parenting, however, is a learning process. Good parents and good politicians need to have empathy, among many other qualities, in order to make decisions and perform tasks.

Empathy, according to Heinz Kohut, "is the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person." According to Carl Rogers, empathy means "to perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person, but without ever losing the 'as if' condition. Thus, it means to sense the hurt or the pleasure of another as he senses it and to perceive the causes thereof as he perceives them, but without ever losing the recognition that it is as if I were hurt or pleased and so forth."

There are various ways that individuals can develop and express life-affirming qualities such as empathy and nurture, protect the wellbeing of future generations, and form satisfying personal relationships. Boxer and Rice have chosen similar paths regarding their commitment to government service; the fact that one is married with children should be incidental to and not a preferred background for employment.

Rice happens to share the childless state with some very intelligent and talented individuals. Among well-known public figures, the following never had children: Jane Addams, Jane Austen, Delta Burke, Brett Butler, Mary Cassatt, Kim Cattrall, Stockard Channing, George Clooney, Mary Crosby, Angela Davis, Emily Dickinson, Linda Evans, Nanci Griffith, Lorraine Hansberry, Debbie Harry, Katherine Hepburn, Billie Holiday, Frida Kahlo, Star Jones, Janis Joplin, Steve Martin, Liza Minnelli, Helen Mirren, Marilyn Monroe, Stevie Nicks, Florence Nightengale, Dorothy Parker, Dolly Parton, Bonnie Raitt, Ayn Rand, Dr. Seuss, Bessie Smith, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sullivan, Reginald VelJohnson, Christopher Walken, Betty White, Oprah Winfrey.

Would anyone dare suggest that Dolly Parton cannot sing a patriotic song because she has not paid a personal price for freedom? Or that Betty White cannot play the role of a mother in a T.V. sitcom because she has no child in real life? Or that Liza Minnelli cannot entertain American troops in a U.S.O. tour? Or that Oprah Winfrey cannot open a school?

Boxer is not the only one who seems to make a harsh distinction between women who have children and those who do not. Over the years, for example, I have attended a couple of different churches where the practice was to give a small gift to all adult women on Mother's Day. In each church, without exception, there were married women with children who complained that the single childless women should not have received a gift. "How come she got a flower? She isn't a mother!" I think, however, the pastor/priest made the empathic decision to honor all women in recognition of their caretaking and self-sacrificing capacities which were expressed through other relationships and works, and which helped to build the body of the church.

The stigma of the childless woman is similar to past judgments heaped upon victims of rape. Rape brought shame to the woman, as though she deserved it and was to blame for it. A childless woman is judged as barren and therefore defective. This is possibly a continuation of Old Testament cultures in which people were ignorant of male infertility, and children were necessary to prevent extinction of tribes. Likewise, when America was more largely an agricultural society, children were necessary as laborers on the family farm. The practical necessity for children seems to have narrowed the meaning of womanhood to exclude intellectual, artistic, and spiritual productivity.

Perhaps the saddest reality behind Boxer's statement is that it goes against the concept of equal opportunity. The original impetus for feminism was not to devalue motherhood, but to expand financial and creative independence for women: something from which Boxer herself has benefitted in her job as senator. Nevertheless, whether intentionally or carelessly, Boxer has allowed herself to be viewed as personally attacking, partisan, and sexist. And, this is now a part of permanent congressional record. (Written 01/22/07: bibliography available.)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2007 Natalia J. Garland