PhD Research Outline
During the many intense upheavals that occurred in British politics in 2016, accusations were levelled at two prominent female politicians: British newspaper the Independent reported the assertion made by a parliamentary colleague that Liz Kendall, a prospective candidate for British Labour Party leadership ‘would not make a good leader because she does not have children.’  The same argument was advanced, in different form, in respect of Theresa May, British Prime Minister between 2016 – 2019, who was accused by fellow parliamentarian Andrea Leadsom of being unfit for office as leader of the Conservative Party, and by extension, future Prime Minister, because she did not have children. The Guardian commented that ‘Being a mother, Leadsom claimed, means “you have a very real stake in the future of our country”’. As it turned out, Theresa May, responsible in her capacity as Prime Minister for ensuring Britain’s exit from the European Economic Union, had a very real stake in her country’s future. As Britain embarked on a lengthy process of national soul-searching with regard to the EU referendum result, May called a snap election in June 2017 to strengthen her hand in the negotiations. However, an unexpectedly disastrous result for her Conservative government saw May become the subject of frustration on the British centre-right, and increasing ridicule from the left-wing of the British press. In the wake of the fire that destroyed the Grenfell residential tower in Kensington, London’s wealthiest borough, on June 14th, one week after the election, May refused at first to meet surviving residents. She was subsequently criticised for being remote, emotionally disengaged and lacking empathy. Would May’s attitude necessarily have been different if she had been a mother? Unhappily for Andrea Leadsom, she had not done her research: May is unable to conceive a child.
The above series of vignettes strike at a central concern of my research interests. Why were these two women considered – in both cases by other women – to be unfit for public office on the basis that they did not have children? Why should any woman, or man, be subjected to veiled criticisms concerning their life choices on this basis? Such challenges to their integrity, their agency, their conscience, or choices of lifestyle seem misjudged. The notion that a person may fail to contribute in a meaningful way to the future of society by choosing not to have children – or not having them due to other factors in their life –and that this choice invalidates them, renders them incomplete or inauthentic, unfit for a responsible role in society, appears similarly misguided. This theme will be central to my research.
My dissertation will be part of a 50:50 written and audio-visual submission in the form of a 40,000 word written thesis and an accompanying film that gives my respondents a chance to represent their respective positions in a public debate that seeks primarily to disparage them. In this way my film will also become part of a public intervention accessible to my research participants as well as a broader audience. The research addresses the topic of people living in south east England who choose not to have children. This is explored through participant-observation employing semi-structured interviews, together with a website supporting filmed extracts that enable the subjects of the research to present their arguments for themselves, and contest instances of negative stereotyping.
My respondents are people I have met or worked with during my working life as an arts practitioner, or during my academic career, and whom I have known for between five and thirty years. Of the core group five are women and two are men. Their ages vary from 27 to 66. All but one is self employed, working in retail, education or the arts. Three are of lower middle or working class origin, four from a middle class background. The majority of my respondents are British, or have grown up in Britain and therefore self-identify as British. One is of mixed heritage, born to Jamaican and Ghanaian parents, and raised by a white adoptive family in the working class Medway town of Gravesend. Their professions are, variously:
- music teacher
- retired primary school teacher
- network retailer and entrepreneur
- university lecturer
- local authority housing officer for disadvantaged young people
- currently unemployed visual artist
- organic food retailer
My film will observe my interviewees’ responses to questions concerning reactions from their own personal networks to their status as people without children: responses from friends, family members, colleagues or physical or mental health professionals. Each of my research group has reached their respective age with no expressed desire to have children, or have passed beyond the chance to do so. In some cases physical or mental health have mitigated against motherhood. Some, at this point in their lives, are not in a stable relationship. This may be a core concern in respect of their status as women or men without children. Interviewees will be encouraged to reflect on the paths their lives have taken, or are expected to take, and to what extent their choices not to have children have framed or influenced their chosen life-ways. Each filmed interview will be intercut with footage showing them at work, at home or at leisure to give context to their lives, allowing the viewer a more nuanced understanding of who these people are, and how they live their lives. I would argue that through the use of film to gather data the viewer will get a clear sense, unavailable through written text, of my respondents’ emotional responses to my questions. They will be able to ‘read’ these responses through facial expression, body language, tone of voice and any pauses in the interviewees’ responses. This will allow the viewer a chance to empathise – or not – with each respondent through a clear and present impression of their emotional states at the time of filming. All have agreed to take part in my research on the understanding that they will be allowed screen-backs of their interviews, to allow them to either ask that something be removed, or expanded upon as filming progresses. Thus, they become collaborators in the process.
To date, there is inadequate audio-visual research that focuses on the topic of those who choose not to have children. There is even little in terms of research that tries to go beyond the objectifying implications of subjects being represented as people who choose not to have children, rather than they having the opportunity to represent themselves. Even though I acknowledge that the latter can then unleash another set of objectifying gazes it is one step toward getting towards a more participatory form of representing research where my subjects can decide on and approve the content of the audio-visual media, a subject that I return to below.
The format of the first part of this outline will be a literature review on key themes pertinent to the research. The second part will focus on my reasons for wanting to develop a website supporting a series of short filmed interviews extracted from my main film as a core element of my research, with each segment standing alone as an account of the respective interviewee’s responses to my questions, and the dialogues between us that ensue. I will also examine tensions between film and written text within academic practice, and consider where my research might fit within ethnographic filmmaking.
The key questions that I address are:
(i) What roles in society, what other spaces might be available to the person who has chosen not to have children, for whom motherhood, or fatherhood, is not an option, or for whom the opportunity has passed due to circumstance or earlier disinclination?
(ii) How do they navigate these spaces, and how do they deal with the responses to their decisions from those in their social circles?
(iii) How do they present themselves in public fora, in this case filmed footage made available on the internet? What potentials and limitations are there in terms of the subjects of research to present their views themselves, outside of the realm of writing about them?
PART ONE: LITERATURE REVIEW
In this section, I address societal anxieties about reproductivity in Euro-American/British contexts and the perception and role of women in this discourse. As the majority of my respondents are women, I concentrate largely on issues affecting adult females. My historical sources will focus primarily on Euro-American literature: my respondents are oriented more to a Euro-American heritage than others. I will examine theories on futurity – described by Jana Funke as ‘a shared investment in the future’ via heteronormative modes of sexual reproduction (Funke, 2011:1) – and especially the protection, in Lee Edelman’s terms, of the future of the Child (Edelman, 2004). I will look at recent hostility in public fora in Britain and the United States towards the childfree; questioning to what extent the creation of a category ‘childfree’ simply creates a discursive field in which women can be castigated for failing to fulfil conventional expectations, and which negatively positions the child in the discourse. I will suggest that for some women the decision not to bear children might be framed as an instance of gender(ed) dissidence.
Judith Butler (1990), Judith Halberstram (1998) and David Valentine (1997) contend that ‘woman’ is too general a term to capture the nuances of women’s lived experiences. Hence, the problematic nature of a putative definition of ‘woman’ as an adult female person. In using the term ‘woman’, I acknowledge that it is the site of multifarious and intersectional aspects, and I do not seek to essentialise through its use.
THE CHILDLESS, AND THE CHILDFREE
The term ‘childfree’, first listed in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1979, is widely used to describe both women and men without children and social environments in which children are absent. Candice Korasick draws a comparison between women who are involuntarily without children being conventionally labelled ‘childless, infertile, sterile or barren’, while women who have made a deliberate choice to reject motherhood are ‘voluntarily childless, childless-by-choice, or childfree’ (Korasick, 2010: 3). Madelyn Cain reports that many of her friends ‘drifted into childlessness’, and suggests that as a society ‘we have not learned to separate femininity from fertility’ and that the emergence of childlessness or child freedom means that ‘women are seizing the opportunity to be fully realized, self-determined individuals – regardless of what society thinks of them ‘(Cain, 2001:16, my emphasis). Cain does however go on to recognise that these life-ways are not equivalent. For women who are childless due to medical conditions, diminished capacity due to social or economic factors, or mental illness; or lesbians for whom the process of becoming pregnant can pose practical or ethical issues, it is not necessarily a question of having made a choice or having ‘drifted’ into childlessness.
Kristin Park points out that during the 1970s voluntary childlessness among both women and men received some support from radical political movements promoting zero population growth, environmentalism and repudiations of the ‘1950s domestic ideology’ (Park, 2002:22). She compares this to pronatalist movements of the 1980s which were concerned with the notionally deleterious effects of childlessness among adult baby boomers on the American national economy. As a result, the use of medical information was used to suggest to young women that ‘to delay too long or to become childless’ was to ‘risk endemetriosis or reproductive cancers’ (Park,ibid:23). In terms of my own research, I am interested to what extent the intersection of choice/not choice (to ‘drift’ into childlessness) has impacted on my respondents’ circumstances. Have any among my subjects for whom childbearing is now no longer practicable come to regret their choices to remain childfree, or their former ambivalence towards the prospect of motherhood? Are they concerned with the putative negative medical implications of such outcomes? What pressures have they come under from their social environment to conform to conventional expectations of them in this key regard? How do they fare at family gatherings, where children may inevitably be the focus of attention?
Anand Akundy ascribes to mothers the role of ‘labour unit’, who, in their later years, become economically redundant , only contributing economically as grandmothers looking after children at times when their parents are otherwise occupied (Akundy, 2004:106). Christine Overall appeals to deontology (the study of duty and obligation) and consequentialism (that the morality of an action is to be assessed according to its consequences) to inquire whether or not the obligation to have children can be considered necessary regardless of its consequences to the mother, her culture or society at large. She questions whether one should consider the consequences of bringing another human being into the world where famine, poverty, war or domestic violence mitigate against such a decision. In doing so, she frames the decision to have – or not have – children as a moral act and defines the conditions where such decisions can be seen to be immoral or unethical. In the case of the assertion that one has a duty to the unborn child to allow that being to come into the world, she denies this on the basis that until the moment of conception the conditions for that child to exist are absent: there is therefore no previously existing entity to answer for (Overall, 2012:72).
Peter Stoneley, writing about Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn, canonised for its ‘exploration of the meaning of childhood’, argues for children as ‘agents of change’, not simply as passive units of cultural and social reproduction (Stoneley, 2016:169). For Stoneley, Twain’s character Jim posits children as actors with the potential for moral progress and racial justice. Yet he is concerned that children may be subject to exploitation by political processes as figures emblematic of the tyranny of heteronormative conformity. Here, ideals of childhood come into play that may be understood ‘to legitimate institutional structures’ by infusing them with affect, especially where ‘the only future that is valid is that of the heteronormative family and its child’ (ibid: 170). Stoneley suggests that Twain’s authorial moral scheme is focused on children and child-rearing as ‘guarantors of meaning, moral identity, and futurity’ (ibid:171).
In terms of my own research, I will examine to what extent the concepts and concerns discussed above impact on my interviewees. How do they respond to the notion that their status as childfree persons negatively affects the continuance of society? How do they navigate negative assessments of their societal status through such terms as ‘barren’ or ‘sterile’? Do they have a sense of obligation to refrain from childbearing on the grounds that it is selfish or irresponsible to bring a child into a world riven with political strife and division, famine and poverty, or the threat of environmental catastrophe? Where they have made a positive decision to remain childfree, or have drifted into that state, have they any regret or remorse? Do they feel excluded from societal acceptance from their peers or familiar circles on the basis of their failure to conform to conventional expectations, to a notional heteronormative conformity?
Can the desire to resist using the reproductive system altogether result in some sense of dysphoria, a state of unease or dissatisfaction? If so, how is this countered or contested? Despite normative strictures and articulations of the woman’s role in reproduction, they have been countered or contested. Nevertheless, many women are subjected to a barrage of opinions if they choose to diverge. One of my respondents felt the effects this very keenly, and her sense of outrage at the questioning of her choices became one of the motivating factors for my research.
The nullipara seeks, implicitly, to step out of the mainstream discourse regarding children, into a space where she can feel valid and viable, to escape the disabling and devaluing disapproval – whether explicit or not – from her familiar social sphere. Yet, in looking to sidestep comments or criticisms, to gain a space beyond the mainstream discursive field, one inevitably finds oneself in a closed loop. Any attempt to deviate from such a discourse is to approach the subject in the same discursive language, and in the same linguistic terms, creating what might be described as a discursive subspace rather than an escape route. As Mary Beard writes on the power dynamics between women and men, ‘You can’t easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure’ (Beard, 2017:86/87).
Renske Keizer characterises adults who have made the decision not to have children, or have become by force of circumstance childfree – a woman without children defined medically as nullipara- as selfish and individualistic (Keizer, 2011:24). Katha Pollit found that childless women were widely regarded less favourably than mothers (Pollitt,1998:293). Other writers identify attitudes towards childfree women as promulgated by other women: neurotic, selfish, bitter, un-sisterly, unnatural, evil, lacking validity as ‘real’ women, ‘child-hating workaholics’, and lacking femininity (Cain, 1999; Campbell, 1985; Gillespie, 1999; Letherby, 1994, 1997; May, 1995; Monach, 1993). For Kristy Leonard, the childfree woman is stigmatised as ‘non-normative, queer and selfish’ (Leonard, 2012:2). Often, non-mothers reported that they felt factors driving this opprobrium reflected envy of their status, and the opportunities it afforded them (Gillespie, 2003:124; Letherby, 1997:26) . Leonard suggests that women subjected to the strictures and conventions of mainstream expectations, and methods deployed to police their responses to those expectations, have been ‘historically associated with the body rather than the mind’: women have become ‘procreative serfs’, subject to the pressures of ‘compulsory procreation’ (Leonard,2012:5). Erika Dreifus, writing in No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Motherhood, quotes Kathryn Rossetter in claiming that many women who are not mothers become objects of certain assumptions: ‘that I am a feminist and career woman who never wanted kids… that I am selfish and self-absorbed and I will never really understand life and the depth of unconditional love’ (Rossetter in Dreifus, 2014:188). This has been a central theme in earlier conversations with two of my respondents whom I have known for many years, both of whom have loving relationships with younger nieces and nephews.
Kristin Park suggests that intelligence may be a factor for the nullipara in the decision to reject motherhood: better-educated women may be more active in management roles, and less inclined towards religious belief, traditional gender roles and conventional societal expectations about having children (Park, 2005:15). Paul de Sandre references pronatalism when commenting that it ‘implies encouragement of all births as conducive to individual, family and social well-being’ (de Sandre 1978:145). Alena Heitlinger expands on this by writing that pronatalism can then be seen as operating on several levels: culturally, when childbearing and motherhood are perceived as ‘natural’ and central to a woman’s identity; ideologically, when motherhood becomes a patriotic, ethnic or eugenic obligation; and psychologically, when childbearing is identified with personal aspirations, emotions and rational (or irrational) decision-making (by women or couples) (Heitlinger, 1191:343-75). Tanya Koropeckyj-Cox and Vaughn R. A. Call cite research on voluntarily childless adults (primarily women) describing them as ‘a distinctive group, with consistently higher levels of education, greater occupational status, greater attachment to the labour force, higher incomes, and later ages at marriage compared to parents’( Cox and Vaughan,2007). S.P. Morgan and R.P.King found that parenthood is highly valued for its personal and social rewards, including emotional bonds, nurturing, investing in the next generation, personal growth, and the symbolic attainment of adult status (Morgan and King, 2001:3-20). K.Edin and M.Kefalas suggest that child-bearing can signal authenticity for a woman, and the reinforcement of their gendered identity (Edin and Kefalas, 2005: 24). In her book The Woman in the Body, Emily Martin likens a post-menopausal woman to a disused factory, with (re)production shut down (Martin, 1987:79). Those of my interviewees who have passed through menopause will be asked to reflect on this somewhat inelegant metaphor. To what extent might childbearing be seen to be analogous to industrialised commodity production, with all the echoes of alienation and frustrated self-determination that such a notion implies?
Writing in 2016 in the International Journal of Applied Research, K. Annapurany describes the division of feminism into three distinct waves: in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the first wave began in Britain and the United States as a struggle by suffrage groups and activists for political and economic equality. The second wave, in the 1960s and 1970s, was characterised by a critique of patriarchy in constructing the cultural identity of women. The third wave is posited as a reaction to its predecessor in popular culture that sought to examine, expose and contest routine discrimination against, and negative criticism and abuse of, primarily young women. Zdenka Sadl and Tajda Ferko outline intersectionality in third-wave feminism, defining it as a ‘perspective [that] has encouraged a more inclusive approach to viewing women’s position in society, one that analyses their social location, experience and identity as being determined not just by sexism, but also by racism, classism, ageism, heteronormativity, ableism and other major systems of oppression’ (Sadl and Ferko,2017:925).
Among first-wave feminists, ‘girlie’ roles were rejected for supporting a hegemonic patriarchal perspective on the legitimisation of the woman’s role in conventional society. Writers such as Daphne DeMarneffe (2005:7) endorse such a view, while third-wave commentators such as Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards document the reclaiming of ‘girlie’ culture in the 1990s, with motherhood seen as a central tenet of such revisionist ideals (Baumgardner and Richards, 2000:26).
Sonia Correa seems on the one hand to suggest that the notion that hegemonic male power always and everywhere disadvantages women obstructs a more ‘nuanced, complex and intricate understanding of power’, while on the other reinforcing the claim that for women in societies such as her native Brazil, it is for development agencies to intercede in enhancing their agency .Thus, it would seem that structural inequalities might be reinforced by and through those acts of ‘empowerment’, no matter how well intentioned. She goes on to write that ‘as Foucault would say, increases in power may not mean greater freedom but rather intensification of increasing control’ (Correa, 2010: 184).
Yet it is a later claim that seems to strike at the heart of an intriguing conundrum: In claiming that it is not necessarily the case that women are excluded from realms of power, Correa writes that ‘One quite evident domain of women’s power within gender systems is the realm of procreation… Sexuality is and has been a domain where women exercise their power over other women and also men. Sexuality is a place of both agency and control, of both vulnerability and restrictions and major breakthroughs in what concerns personal freedom’ (Correa, ibid: 185, italics my emphasis).
She concludes by pointing out that the complexities of gendered power relations cannot be captured by appealing to the ‘patriarchal hierarchy of bad men and good women’ (Correa, ibid: 186). There are tensions between Lesbians and gay men, in and among Lesbian communities, violence perpetrated on men in closed communities such as prisons, and ‘inequalities among women themselves, along the lines of race, class, cast, ethnicity or simply educational opportunities’ (Correa, ibid:188). This reflects an intriguing conundrum: the tensions in the case of many of my respondents’ social interactions, revealed through earlier conversations, in regard to their status as non-mothers seem not at first glance to be the direct results of patriarchal domination. The opening vignettes in this document showed clearly that accusations against Liz Kendall and Theresa May of being unfit for public office on the grounds of childfreedom came from other women. This will be a theme I shall explore through my research.
‘We’re fighting for the children. Whose side are you on?’ Bill Clinton, on behalf of himself, Hilary and Chelsea Clinton, from a public service announcement on American television, 1996.
For Lee Edelman, language keeps the childfree subject enclosed within a universalising fantasy that politics constructs of a future legitimised by the presence of the Child, and the woman’s necessary identification with the compulsory impulse to reproduce. Without this identification she becomes a figure bereft of legitimacy or authentic purpose. Edelman, in his influential, often coruscating and somewhat tendentious polemic No Future, rejects the ‘fantasy’ of futurity. Here, the expectation is that heteronormativity will compel each woman to ‘play her part’, to conceive a child within the life-protecting bounds of compulsory heterosexuality. She thus sustains and legitimises the politically sanctioned social order: trust the social order as it will benefit the child (Edelman, 2004:22). For Edelman, the Freudian death drive positions the gay (principally male) subject as ‘the negativity opposed to every form of social viability.’
Rather than rejecting this ascription, Edelman suggests, better to embrace it. Some may recoil from this apparent call to contest the process of what Angelo Restivo calls ‘the comforting dream of assimilation’ for many queer subjects (Restivo, 2004, 2). Andreas Kostenberger, writing for the Family Research Council, describes the ideal of marriage as a state in which ‘one man is united to one woman in matrimony, and the two form one new natural family’ (Kostenberger, 2017). I would argue that this is a somewhat simplistic, narrow and restrictive definition, and one that fails to posit the notion of family as a supportive structure, which does not insist on childbearing as a prerequisite for such nurturing; or as one in which a restrictive structure can entail a great deal of unintended harm. These are themes which I shall examine through my own research.
The emergence of the term ‘queer’ in both popular and academic discourse to signify non-heterosexual persons is attributed by Alison Pullen, Torkild Thanem, Melissa Tyler and Louise Wallenberg to Italian author and academic Theresa de Lauretis, who allegedly first coined the term in 1990 (Pullen, Thanem, Tyler and Wallenberg, 2015). Kristy Leonard echoes Edelman to expand this categorisation in positing the childfree woman as a queer subject, existing beyond the bounds of conventional social structures: ‘queered childless women counter-identify with the subjectivity of ‘mother’…in order to subvert the patriarchy that privileges the child as emblematic of futurity’ (Leonard, 2010:12). In this way, the childfree woman becomes ‘[a]queer subject’, falling outside societal convention through her refusal to procreate, countering the view that it is a woman’s duty to bear children, despite the cost to herself – whether physical, emotional or economic – as the baby is ‘more valuable’ than the woman (Leonard, 2010:15). My research project will examine the extent to which my respondents feel that such outsider status is germane to their own sense of self.
CONCLUSION TO PART ONE
In the first part of this document, I have outlined historical and contemporaneous male attitudes towards women, and instances of societal intransigence faced by women who decide not have children, or for whom circumstances mitigate against motherhood. I have examined theories surrounding issues of futurity, of the notion that an adult woman’s primary concern should be the necessity of guaranteeing the future of society by bearing offspring. Much of this is expressed in terms informed by or consistent with the language of patriarchal hegemony that is also articulated through popular media as the opening anecdotes on Leadsom and May indicate. This is the social and cultural environment in which many of my respondents must make sense of their lives.
In the following section I will outline why I have chosen societal attitudes to the childfree as the topic for my research, and examine how this might find its place within ethnographic filmmaking.
 The Guardian, accessed online, 26.09.16
 I refer here to notions of discourse formulated by Michel Foucault, which focus on societal relations of power as expressed through language and practice (Michel Foucault ’Power and Norms’ in M.Morris and P.Patton (ed), Power, Truth and Strategy, Feral 1979 (Sydney) p62)
 I refer here to notions of the cultural as the circulation and interpretation of representations, and the societal pertaining to roles and positions in structures of power (Erikson, 1963)
 It is challenging to find a term to describe the status of a woman without children that does not entail a negative designation