By Rachel Chrastil
Special To The Washington Post
In the 21st century, millions of women around the world will reach the age of 45 without having given birth. Some will experience infertility, others will choose childlessness early in life, and many will spend years debating whether to have a child.
Childless individuals may think that they are alone in this experience. But they aren’t. Nor is childlessness something new. It is easy to ascribe childlessness to modern historical developments like the pill, second-wave feminism or even periods of economic downturns or war. But in actuality, childlessness - whether by nature, circumstance or choice - has existed for women in the United States and across northwestern Europe, Canada and Australia for centuries.
That’s because while these modern factors shape rates of childlessness, at its core the decision to have children is linked to something far older: the institution of marriage. And changes in the timing and significance of marriage over the past four centuries have given women more control over biological decisions about children. Even as these changes have strengthened the significance of marriage as an institution, they have also made the institution less about procreation and more about economic opportunity and personal fulfillment.
As early as the 1500s, women in the towns and villages of northwestern Europe began to postpone marriage to their mid-20s, rather than their early teens, when they first became biologically capable of motherhood. Instead of marrying young and joining their in-laws’ households, they now wanted to set up an independent household, which took time and money. As young adults, they worked to save for a dowry, to purchase the linens and household pots and pans that would last their entire marriage.
This elevated notion of marriage ironically left wide open the possibility that many people would never marry, and never have children, at all. Once individuals postponed marriage, a combination of personal choices and economic, cultural and biological constraints shaped fertility outcomes. This made childlessness more common. In pre-revolutionary French cities, 15 to 22% of the adult population remained single and, probably, without children.
This new approach to marriage and motherhood gave women more flexibility and independence. In recent years, historians have uncovered an astonishing record of early modern women’s capacity to support themselves as domestic servants, traders, seamstresses, moneylenders, laundresses and in many other trades, as well, despite legal prohibitions. Some, like poet Mary Masters, came to terms with never becoming mothers.
Across the Atlantic in the American colonies, lifelong childlessness was less common. Among European settlers, the biblical injunction to “be fruitful and multiply” and the need for children to labor in fields led to earlier marriage and lots of progeny. Benjamin Franklin’s salute to population increase through early marriage, published in “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind and the Peopling of Countries” (1755) remained popular in the early republic and resonated with national expansion into the Northwest Territory and Louisiana Purchase. For enslaved women, reproduction was cruelly enforced through rape and punishment of the barren.
Nevertheless, in the 1800s, rates of singleness among white women in the United States rose in line with those of western Europe, as more women believed they could do work they cared about and fight for equality and suffrage without the burden of raising children. Moreover, by the late 1800s, marriage and childbearing slowly became pulled apart. More women - especially urban women and those living in New England - began to limit their childbearing within marriage, even if they wed during their fertile years.