If you’re in possession of a uterus, at some point in your life you’ve likely gotten the message that having children isn’t a choice—it’s your duty. For well over a century, doctors, psychologists, and politicians have engaged in intense public campaigns to persuade American women to bear children, publicly exalting motherhood and warning of personal, and societal, peril if they don’t comply.
There’s a word for this: pronatalism, the promotion of baby-making for a nation’s social, political, and economic purposes. Below, a brief history of proselytizing, pseudoscience, and shaming—all committed in the name of turning women into mothers.
Throughout the 19th century, medical professionals regarded motherhood as the realization of women’s natural and divinely ordained role in society. Placed on a pedestal of sentimentality and self-sacrifice, white, middle-class Anglo-Saxon women in particular were considered uniquely suited to instilling moral values in children, all while being safely confined to the private sphere of the home. (Which wasn’t even an option for many poor women and women of color.)
But as more colleges turned coed, and women suffragists gained support for their mission to get the vote, extra efforts became necessary to direct American women toward the role of uncomplaining motherhood. In 1873, as female educators pressured Harvard University to admit women, one of the university’s professors, physician Edward H. Clarke, published Sex in Education; or, a Fair Chance for Girls, which promoted separate education for the sexes, and profiled women with different levels of schooling who had succumbed to “hysteria.” He claimed that a woman who pursued intellectual stimulus “made her brain and muscles work actively, and diverted blood and force to them,” instead of using her powers “for evolution in [the reproductive] region.” The book’s first edition sold out in a week, then went through 16 more printings.
As a surge of immigrants arrived at Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt—a progressive Republican who loved scolding women almost as much as he loved big government—began publicly chiding white American women for not breeding fast, or often, enough to outpace the newcomers. “The chief of blessings for any nation is that it shall leave its seed to inherit the land,” proclaimed Roosevelt in a 1910 speech. “The greatest of all curses is in the curse of sterility, and the severest of all condemnations should be that visited upon willful sterility.” In a 1905 speech before the National Congress of Mothers, an association of parents, teachers, and educational workers, Roosevelt had even accused married couples who bore no more than two children of hastening their own “race suicide”—a term coined by sociologist Edward A. Ross in 1901, and still in use by white supremacists today.
As more women looked to birth control to limit family size during the 1920s, the birth rate for American women dropped. Meanwhile, eugenics—a racist, now-discredited pseudoscience based on the idea that humanity could be improved by encouraging the reproduction of “superior” people with Northern European traits, while suppressing the reproduction of others—was coming into full flower. Eugenicists worried that the falling birth rate meant trouble for the population of the supposedly highest-quality Americans.
One of the more creative responses to this “crisis” was Fitter Families for Future Firesides, a contest held at midwestern agricultural fairs that was more or less a livestock competition for humans. Families—self-selected and mostly white—were scored on their social and medical histories. Their hair, eyes, and teeth were examined, they were given tests for reflexes and mental capacity, and they were even examined for signs of syphilis. (Medals bearing the Biblical phrase “Yea, I have goodly heritage” were affixed to the chests of the “fittest” white families, deeming them reproductively desirable.)
Meanwhile, forced sterilization was widely endorsed by the academic and medical establishments (and upheld by the Supreme Court) as means of regulating births among the supposedly “inferior”: racial and ethnic minorities, the disabled, the poor, and the so-called “feeble minded.” (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the American eugenics movement was a major inspiration for the Nazis.)
Though the end of World War II initiated America’s “baby boom”—an explosion in the country’s birth rate between 1946 and 1964—many women did not want to give up the money or fulfillment they had found in the professional sector: during the same era, the number of working women in the United States continued to grow, from around 28 percent of the civilian labor force to nearly 34 percent. It would take some very targeted messaging to turn these workers into happy homemakers. In their widely cited 1947 book Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, sociologist Ferdinand Lundberg and psychiatrist Marynia F. Farnham argued that modern women had become “psychologically disordered” and less interested in having, and raising, children. A working woman “strives for accomplishment outside her home and can only grudgingly give attention to her children,” they wrote, giving her child “the confused impression that the mother is without love.” The book would become a best-seller.
The successes of the women’s movement of the 1960s and ‘70s—including the widespread availability of the birth control pill, beginning in 1972—portended a revolution in American women’s lives, offering them more economic and sexual freedom by allowing them to build their careers and delay (or forgo) marriage and baby-making altogether. These advancements were, of course, met with backlash. The first mainstream mention of the term “biological clock” in reference to the threat of declining fertility appeared in a 1978 Washington Post column by the journalist Richard Cohen. Headlined “The Clock Is Ticking for the Career Woman,” Cohen’s piece, featuring a fictional female protagonist in the beginning throes of baby panic, lit the fuse on a convenient alarmist metaphor that would persist for decades.
Then, in 1986, Newsweek published the now-infamous cover story “The Marriage Crunch: Too Late for Prince Charming?” which alarmed single women with the now-debunked statistic that by age 40, an unattached American woman was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than get married. (Newsweek would eventually retract that line, although it took 20 years to do so; the magazine claimed their editors “thought it was clear the comparison was hyperbole … Most readers missed the joke.”)
Twenty-first century American pronatalism can be differentiated from its predecessors by degree, not kind. In a country where women now make up 47 percent of the US workforce, politicians and pundits’ efforts to combat a record low birthrate (1.76 children per woman) include fearmongering about a shrinking tax base—and the ongoing rollback of abortion rights. Some experts warn that a smaller workforce unable to support an aging population could lead to economic disaster for the US. But these considerations aren’t usually weighed against another, even larger disaster: the threat of climate change. In fact, according to climate scientists, one of the best ways to contribute less to environmental Armageddon is to simply abstain from having kids. One study from 2017 found that having one fewer child saves the equivalent of 58.6 tons of CO2 per year of the parent’s life.
Of course, pronatalists have a comeback for that: in a speech delivered on the Senate floor this past March before a debate on the Green New Deal, Republican senator Mike Lee of Utah said that, actually, citizens need to concentrate on having more babies—because the ingenuity of as-yet-unborn Americans is going to be what solves the climate crisis. “The solution to so many of our problems, at all times and in all places,” Lee explained, “is to fall in love, get married, and have some kids.” Even environmental collapse can’t keep a pronatalist down.