Across the nation, today we recognize motherhood. It's arguably among the most difficult and invaluable roles in our culture — but the holiday also highlights our fraught relationship with women who opt out of having children. We treat childless women as selfish, untrustworthy anomalies: the portion of people who considered childlessness "bad for society" jumped from 29% to 38% in only two years (the studies took place in 2007 and 2009, respectively). That's despite the fact that in 2008, 18% of women ages 40-44 had never given birth, up from 10% in 1976. Even as more women decide motherhood may not be right for them, we're seeing a growing pushback against the trend.
The term "childless" itself highlights our cultural disdain and pity for women who are not mothers. In a pointed essay on the Huffington Post, Carol Hartsell notes, “In addition to being 100% childless, I am also monsterless, RV-less, ferretless, wingless, third-nippleless, portmanteauless, Ryan-Secrestless, crippling-sense-of-self-loathingless and teaching-certificateless.”
Hartsell continues, “What we’re afraid to point out is that our culture portrays motherhood as a reasonable alternative career path. Men are never taught to think that they can either have a career or be a dad, that both are equally important. But women are.”
So this Mother’s Day, as we honor the millions of extraordinary, loving, committed mothers in the world, let's not forget the many fulfilled, successful women who opt not to become mothers, and who have nonetheless contributed enormous work to our culture and world. Check out these eight famous women who led and are leading big lives, without children:
The first American woman and the first (known) LGBT person in space, Sally Ride had no children and pursued a vibrant scientific career. Prior to her first space mission in 1983 (she served on a second shuttle flight the following year), Ride beat 1,000 other applicants for the spot. She held bachelor’s degrees in physics and English, and a Ph.D. in physics, and directed the California Space Institute at the University of California, San Diego. Committed to expanding science education, Ride also wrote five children's science books and started her own company to inspire women and girls to pursue scientific careers.
Comedian Margaret Cho began performing stand-up at the age of 16 and soon won a contest to open for Jerry Seinfeld. In her twenties, she landed her own TV show, All American Girl; she's since produced critically acclaimed shows like I’m the One that I Want and Notorious C.H.O and snagged an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of Kim Jong Il on 30 Rock. Throughout her career, Cho has been active in anti-racism, anti-bullying, and anti-homophobia campaigns. On motherhood, she says: “I do not want children. When I see children, I feel nothing. I have no maternal instinct. I am barren. I ovulate sand.”
She eschews interviews and almost anything connected to her 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird — but Lee made an indelible impact on American literature and the lives of millions. She never had children, and these days the 87-year-old stays active in her church and community in Monroeville, Alabama.
Since she landed her first television gig as a 19-year-old news anchor in Nashville, media giant Winfrey has built an empire. Her talk show was nationally syndicated for twenty-five years; she’s written five books; and she owns a television network — to name a few of her accomplishments. In 2007, she donated $40 million to start the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. “Some people ask me why I never had children,” she says. “Maybe this is the reason. So I can help bring up other peoples’ children.”
Though she recognized the importance of a mother's role, the woman who founded Mother's Day had no children herself. Jarvis lobbied for the holiday to memorialize her own mother, a woman who nursed wounded Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Through letter-writing and promotional campaigns, Jarvis successfully got Congress to institute Mother's Day nationwide in 1914 — though she soon became embittered at its commercialization. Jarvis lamented, “A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother — and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.”
Sotomayor, the first Latina and third female Supreme Court Justice, grew up in the tenements of the Bronx, graduated from Princeton and Yale Law School, and became a federal judge at the age of 38. In her memoir, My Beloved World, Sotomayor notes that a lifelong struggle with diabetes, and the fear of dying early, played a significant role in her decision not to have children.
Food Network mogul Ray has established herself as a powerful force in the cooking industry. With four Food Network shows — including her hit 30 Minute Meals — and more than 20 cookbooks to her name, Ray keeps active. “I work too much to be an appropriate parent,” she says. “I feel like a bad mom to my dog some days because I’m just not here enough. I just feel like I would do a bad job if I actually took the time to literally give birth to a kid right now and try and juggle everything I’m doing.”
The first black woman in Congress, Chisholm was a lifelong champion of minority education and employment. Before launching her political career, she earned a master’s in elementary education from Columbia University, directed the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center, and worked as a consultant with the New York City Bureau of Child Welfare. Chisholm became the first black woman to make a bid for president when she ran for the Democratic nomination in 1972. She served seven terms in Congress on the Education and Labor Committee, helped found the Congressional Black Caucus, and later taught at Mt. Holyoke College. Though her groundbreaking career made her a powerful figure in American political history, Chisholm once said in an interview that she didn't want to be remembered as the first black Congresswoman. "I'd like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts," she said. "That's how I'd like to be remembered."