Child-Free and Loving It: A Turn of the Century Look at Your Barren Womb

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Child-Free and Loving It: A Turn of the Century Look at Your Barren Womb
Illustration by Angelica Alzona. :

Here you are: Your precious fertile years are waning, your once-fecund ovaries rotting like two sun-blistered plums. Each month, another shriveled ovum drops from your empty womb, sloughed along in the tides of your “monthly unwellness.” And with that ovum, so drops your chance to be a mother.

My heart aches for you. Not only for your dry, sour little uterus. But for the diseased mind connected to it.

I know the truth about you. I know the horrible things you’ve been doing to impede God, Nature, and the blessed sperm bestowed upon you. I know you don’t want a child.

You’ve looked at your life and decided you’d rather not change it. You’ve decided to be, as is the fashionable term, “Child-Free.” Once upon a time, we’d have just called you “selfish.” You’ve still got one or two feeble eggs, ready to heave themselves down your fallopian tubes toward life. This may be your last chance. Let’s thoroughly examine this subject together, while we still have time.

As I said, “Child-Free” wasn’t always the preferred term for a woman in your position. We would have, up until quite recently, just called you “childless,” But, this indicates loss of something desired, so it doesn’t describe you. Before that we would have called you “barren,” and we’d have been referring both your womb and your heart. Both dry and dusty voids to be filled only with the pity of the happy mothers around you. And we certainly wouldn’t have even considered whether or not you wanted a baby. Of course you did.

The Life and Age of Woman, via the Library of Congress. :

Alice Freeman Lusk said it perfectly in a small story she wrote about motherhood in 1908:

“Think girls, of a big, honest, noble, masterful man, whose heart is all your own. Think of the happiness of building together your home, of sharing alike its joys and sacrifices. Then, of some day…to hold within your arms his child and yours, a baby all your own, to love, to cherish, to fashion, with God’s help, into noble manhood, or womanhood. Oh, girls, that’s God’s crown for woman.”

But apparently this is not the crown you are looking for. God’s glory wreathing your brow just can’t compete with consequence-free copulation and the leisure to attend pub crawls without finding a babysitter first, can it?

In 1905, a magazine called The Independent published a scandalous essay by one of its own journalists, who signed herself simply, “A Childless Wife.” She and her husband were in love, professional, and heavily involved in their community. She believed all of that would be drowned out by the first sweet scream of a newborn’s lungs.

She stated that having a child would make her a less useful member of society, detract from the love she and her husband shared, “(…to change me from a well-paid magazine editor and an active social worker into a dependent housekeeper and nurse would affect our marriage, probably unfavorably”) and cause her to become wholly dependent upon her husband instead of her own self. She said having a child would, “make us lower, not nobler, people.”

Illustration by Gordon Ross, published in Puck, 1910. Via the Library of Congress. :

She reinforced her decision with tales of once happy friends who had babies, each child leeching more of the vitality, intelligence, and eventually life itself from her comrades. A particularly tragic tale was the one of a couple, both of whom worked in their chosen field of writing, enjoying plenty of money and leisure between the two of them. But that all changed.

“Children came and she was tied at home. With the advent of the fourth his income became plainly, even painfully, insufficient, and he went into ordinary journalism. A fifth baby forced him to extra exertions and his mental powers broke under the strain. In a moment of despair and insanity he shot himself.”

Well…that’s a tad dramatic, I think. But even if true, well, not to be cruel, but people who pursue writing as a career aren’t exactly known for mental stability. Honestly anything could have set the man off. Someone probably insulted the angle at which he wore his beret.

Our deluded “Barren”-ess suffers not only an emptiness of milk ducts, but of soul itself. She doesn’t need a baby; she’s found something else to love.

“I had been taught that money cannot buy happiness; that in a true marriage monetary considerations are of no importance; also that it makes men noble to provide for dependent wives and women sweet and satisfied to be provided for.”

Whoever taught A Childless Wife these lessons must have forgot to use a proper beating paddle because the lesson did not stick. She holds that money does buy happiness.

“My economic studies showed me that we were living in a money-based civilization, therefore it was folly to talk as if marriage could be exempt from that all-reaching influence. I was convinced, also, that holding the power of the purse tends to make men either tyrannical and selfish or condescendingly indulgent, and that dependence tends to make women either timid and sycophantic or deceitful and unscrupulous. I decided that freedom, equality and self-ownership would come to the wife with her own pocketbook.”

Self-ownership? Ladies, if Nature had intended you to be your own boss she wouldn’t have saddled you with relatively low muscle mass and a reproductive tract than can be likened to a bleeding wound that doesn’t heal until you’re 55. That is not a description of a person capable of unprotected existence!

A subsequent Letter to the Editor regarding the article, written by “A Contented Wife,” spoke what we are all surely thinking:

“THE “Childless “wife” is a monstrosity in life and a yellow freak in journalism. Also, she doesn’t tell the truth. And what does she mean by setting herself up as a worker in social reform and settlement homes? She is virulent. She ought to be banished from society. She can do the country more harm in a day preaching her vulgar and selfish doctrines to young women who come under her influence than the worst man in New York can do in a lifetime. “

There were also some bits about “man-hating spinster” and “race-suicide” among those who responded with outrage to A Childless Wife’s views but I’ll omit them because I’m fairly sure this particular readership, sensitive as it is, would chose to find such bold terms offensive.

And of course we don’t know how A Childless Wife’s story ended; what happened to her as her body grew weary of a carousing lifestyle, lots of empty-womb sex, and having to think for itself all the time. But I will assure you, her story ended alone. And probably in a ditch. Drunk. With syphilis. Drowning in sewer run-off and regret.

I don’t have documentation of that. But who among us could imagine any different outcome?

Musical supplement to the New York Sunday Press, Jan. 20, 1901. via the New York Public Library Digital Collections. :

Now we’ve established that if you, like “A Childless Wife,” have chosen to be child-free, you are empty of soul, selfish and controlled by your basest desires. It is also likely that you are suffering an inflated sense of your value to this world. A Childless Wife also had a rather long whinge about the likelihood that she would die during delivery. She was staunchly against dying. And yes, maternal death would have been a concern 100 years ago but really… a rather pompous one don’t you think? Should the baby live and the mother die, well, how bad is that really? You’ve earned a crown in heaven, and everyone knows that single fathers bring the ladies in droves. The kid will have a new mother before you’re cold in the ground. So stop bleating.

If you’re not moved by the ethical wrongs in refusing to reproduce, then at least take into account the medical dangers of involved in keeping a beautiful life from properly blowing up inside your belly bag! You, like women have done for all of time—whores, by the way, mostly whores—are tampering in God’s domain. You’re taking chemicals that prevent a life from sparking. You’re using a barrier to keep your husband’s potent man-nectar from reaching its rightful prize. You’ve inserted some sort of dread pessary to taint your womb. You’re allowing your husband to spill his life-seed outside your body. God used to kill people for that, you know.

Before it became illegal to publish information about birth control in the United States, some doctors, like one filthy Dr. James Ashton, would write about how to approach preventing unwanted children. The easiest way was withdrawal. 19th century people of virtue hostilely referred to this practice as “Onanism,” but Dr. Ashton thought that was nonsense, and he even included notes for how to keep things tidy during the act of withdrawal:

“Always carry to bed a clean napkin, which is to be kept in the hand of the male during the nuptial act. It will then be a very easy matter to place this napkin in a proper position to receive the Semen on with-drawl, at the instant it would otherwise be injected into the body of the female. If you do it at the proper moment, no pleasure is lost to either party; and habit will soon make you expert in this respect.”
Illustration from “Social Purity” by J. W. Gibson, 1903, via the Library of Congress. :

Repugnant and untrue! Learned men knew that semen must come into contact with the cervix to trigger female orgasm, which must be present to conceive life. They also knew that depriving semen from the starving maw of a woman’s open womb causes her to suffer all manner of illnesses, from cancer to consumption. Semen is very important. You are playing fast and loose with the stuff and you will be sorry.

Orson Squire Fowler is the man to tell you just how sorry you will be. He was not a doctor or a pastor or a social worker or a scholar or…. Well, he was a phrenologist and he designed octagon houses. Point is, he was brilliant, very righteous and an excellent ranter. He also had a penis and access to a printing press so you will listen to him, Missy. He sums up the kind of woman, or couple, who would choose not to be parents.

“PREVENTING CONCEPTION OUTRAGES EVERY SEXUAL LAW. Think you, after God has created you men and women, and ordained all this creative machinery solely to secure reproduction, you can thwart and cheat Him without incurring His retribution commensurate with His highest law you break? Prepare to meet your God, ye who persist.”

God is coming for you, Child-Free Women. And if history is any precedent, He’s bringing His smitin’ stick.

There were some legitimate reasons for childlessness in married women. But, since until recent years it would be obvious she would never have purposely chosen this hollow life, those reasons were all the depressing results of her personal flaws.

circa 1840: A mother gestures for others to be quiet as her baby sleeps. Photo via Getty Images. :

Perhaps you were too sickly to bear children. Probably because your reproductive organs were suffering from years of mal-use. Masturbation, or as we prefer to say, “the secret vice,” will dry those organs right up, you know, as will sex with men who are not your lawful husband. Your uterus knows whose penis belongs to your lawful husband, by the way. Don’t think she doesn’t. Or perhaps you’ve failed as a wife, forcing your man to contend with your slovenly appearance, frigid embrace and inability to cook a calf pancreas properly. Perhaps, as a result, you’ve driven your husband to spend his nights in beds more desirable than your own, depriving you of his fertile fluids.

Or maybe your sterility is a mystery, with no outward signs of poor character or sickness for us to judge you on. So we’d just have to go with the obvious. That is, for whatever reason, God just doesn’t want any more like YOU in the world.

Of course there have been exceptions. There have existed women whose lives are so valuable that they could not risk marriage or children. Like Joan of Arc, or Queen Elizabeth I. Are you a direct vessel of the Lord defending France in His name? Or busy ruling a nation, selflessly avoiding marriages that could rend your kingdom apart? Oh, you’re not? You just like to sleep in? Well, that’s a perfectly legitimate reason to slap God in the face. Let’s see how that plays out!

There were many times throughout history that intelligent men argued about whether or not a woman was actually a person. It seemed to some that she was more like dirt. Oh, pish. Don’t get offended—special dirt, like in a very nice garden, where a man would plant his fruit trees and wait for his harvest: sons. Or as the great Napoleon Bonaparte mused:

“Woman is given to man that she may bear children. Woman is our property; we are not hers: because she produces children for us; we do not yield any to her: she is therefore our possession, as the fruit-tree is that of the gardener.’’

Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in his 1881 offering Common Sense about Women, understands that analogy is a bit harsh. To say out loud. Directly to the Child-Free woman’s face. So he wrote it thusly:

“[The fruit-tree] view is now seldom expressed in full force: the remnant of it is to be found in the lingering impression, that, at any rate, a woman who is not a mother is of no account; as worthless as a fruitless garden or a barren fruit-tree. Created only for a certain object, she is of course valueless unless that object be fulfilled.”

Now, go forth, Child-Free women, and consider what I’ve lain before you. Do you still believe it possible to have a fulfilling life without extruding a man’s biological legacy from your body? Science-like words tell us your body, and your soft gentle woman-brain, were created to do precisely that. Your insistence that it is capable of so much more, making contributions to your world through your own strength, intelligence, and joy, with or without a child, is such stubborn thinking. So like a woman.

Therese Oneil is the author of New York Times-bestselling Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners. She lives in Oregon and writes for The Atlantic, The Week, Mental Floss and more; meet her at

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