Pronatalism can be traced to early patriarchal religions in which women were clearly tied to their reproductive role and motherhood was promoted as a woman’s primary purpose and duty to God. Tying women to their reproductive role ensured that the population of a religion’s members increased (thus strengthening the power of that religion), and also ensured that patriarchal power was maintained, since a woman tied to childbearing and childrearing becomes more dependent and submissive to the men of her community for protection and financial support.
As societies developed, pronatalist forces arose to “offset the wastage of war and disease” (Hollingworth), and to encourage population growth, which traditionally has expanded the industrial, political and military advantages of countries.
In Barren in the Promised Land, Tyler May examines the historical roots of pronatalism and childlessness in American culture. She explains that for early American settlers, having children was necessary for survival, since children were reared, not for pleasure, but for the economic benefit and expansion of the community. Infant mortality was high, so couples needed to have twice the number of children to ensure that a number of them would make it to adulthood. The average colonial woman had eight children. (Chapter 1). Pronatalist forces exerted themselves through Puritan religious and community imperatives mandating women to bear many children and tying a woman’s role completely to motherhood. Intentional childlessness was not an option at all, and a woman making such a choice would be cast out of the community. A woman who was infertile was perceived as having received punishment from God for transgressions she committed and was put into service in other ways (for example helping to take care of other women’s children).
In the early 1900s, the United States government took a visible pronatalist stance when President Roosevelt placed reproduction center stage in declaring that Americans were committing “race suicide”. This was not due to declining population as the population was increasing, but the increase was coming from immigrants who were bearing more children than the American-born middle class. Roosevelt’s stance helped to fuel the powerful eugenics movement, encouraging some Americans to reproduce while preventing others from doing so.
The “race suicide panic” was not successful in boosting the birth rate, but during the post World War II years, the Baby Boom ensued, fueled both by an economic boom but also by a change in the national political culture in which “the nation’s security suddenly became fused with a vision of the American home. The ideal of domesticity, focused on the nuclear family with children, came to embody the hope for the future of the nation and the ultimate achievement of happiness and personal fulfillment for its citizens.” (Tyler May, p. 129) Parenthood was seen as patriotic and childlessness was seen as deviant, selfish and pitiable. Also, during World War II, women had entered the work force out of necessity, taking over men’s jobs while they were away at war. When the men returned from war, they needed their jobs back and women were pushed out of the work force and back into the home. This fueled the domesticity ideal and the push for reproduction, since reproduction ties a woman more tightly to the home. This image was reinforced by the expanding media of the time including a glut of women’s magazines, television shows and advertising, which emphasized and romanticized domesticity and a woman’s role as mother and housekeeper (Peck).
During the cold war, the focus shifted to alleged threats to the nation’s future, namely “internal enemies, bred from the middle class itself, who posed a threat to the nation’s security because they were ‘soft’…so called subversives, pinkos, and homos were the children of ‘neurotic’ women.” (p. 153). A standard of “natural” motherhood took shape in which women were expected to embrace a submissive role as wife and mother and in which any woman who consciously or unconsciously avoided this role was vilified.
In the 1970s, the childfree movement emerged, “consistent with and supported by a number of political philosophies, including feminism, environmentalism, zero population growth, gay and lesbian rights, the movement for reproductive choice and the New Left’s rejection of the domestic ideology and compulsory pronatalism of the early years of the cold war.” (Tyler May, p. 184). Although the movement gave voice to the voluntarily childless, it neither erased the stigma nor fully articulated the various motives for opting out of parenthood. It may have widened the cultural space for the childless in American society, but that space remained on the margin.” (Tyler May, p. 183)
In the 1980s a new pronatalist push arrived on the heels of the childfree movement of the 1970s. Suddenly the focus shifted to the career women and the supposed “infertility epidemic” of women delaying motherhood. While Tyler May points out there is no evidence that infertility rates actually increased during this time, nevertheless the pressures on women to become mothers increased and the numbers of people seeking fertility treatments rose dramatically. One may view this pronatalist push as a conservative backlash against the post-1970s feminist movement and subsequent shift of woman away from stay-at-home motherhood and toward a dual role of career woman and mother.
Why does pronatalism persist today? Certainly, when we consider the pressing social and environmental problems such as overpopulation, suburban sprawl, pollution, the disappearance of forests and farm land, global warming and the substantial population of orphaned children, it seems nonsensical that procreation pressures (and the resulting stigmatization of childfreedom and childlessness) should continue. Perhaps this may be explained by thinking about who benefits from a growing population – the government in a larger tax base and potential increase in military power, religions in the potential for increased membership, and mass marketers who rely on and profit from a growing number of consumers to purchase their goods.