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“But You Would Be the Best Mother”: Unwomen, Counterstories, and the Motherhood Mandate

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This paper addresses and challenges the pronatalist marginalization and oppression of voluntarily childless women in the Global North. These conditions call for philosophical analyses and for sociopolitical responses that would make possible the necessary moral spaces for resistance. Focusing on the relatively privileged subgroups of women who are the targets of pronatalist campaigns, the paper explores the reasons behind their choices, the nature and methods of Western pronatalism, and distinguishes three specific sources of some of the more lasting, and stigmatizing attacks: popular culture, law and policy, and medicine itself. I then argue that because they are construed by motherhood-essentializing, and increasingly popular, pronatalist narratives as, among other things, “failed” or “selfish,” voluntarily childless women are subsequently burdened with damaged identities that can leave them personally othered and uniquely liminal in ways that are destructive to moral agency. Finally, I conclude with a challenge to the pronatalist master narratives by suggesting the possibility of counter narratives to the voluntarily childless woman's liminality that might serve as the ground of moral and political solidarity among differently situated women, regardless of their motherhood status.

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  1. Although these trends are also very much present in varying ways in the Global South, due to space limitations and theoretical focus, I am limiting the scope of this paper geographically.

  2. For further discussions about the distinctions between childlessness, “voluntary childlessness,” and “childfreedom,” see Shapiro (2014), Blackstone and Stewart (2012), Hara (2008), Iwasawa (2004), Merlo and Rowland (2000), Chancey and Dumais (2009), Park (2005), Basten (2009), and McAllister and Clark (1998).

  3. See Mom Central (, The Huffington Post (, and Appelbaum (2013) for some advertising industry discussion about how to market to mothers, as well as some of the more popular marketing campaigns aimed at mothers. I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for questions and critiques that encouraged this line of inquiry.

  4. In fact, Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard Law School professor, has noted that “[p]eople without children have a much weaker stake in our collective future” (Goldberg 2002, ¶18).

  5. One might note that VC women, especially more recently given the benefits of the Internet and social networking, have become aware of each other and of their shared struggles. While this is certainly a development of great interest to the VC and theorists alike, it is far from the hegemonic hold of pronatalist orthodoxy, and interestingly enough, it is internally weakened by the solitary nature of the VC experience.

  6. For example, in 1994, California passed the Maximum Family Grant rule, denying financial support to children born while their families were receiving California state welfare (see Even though this was an explicit attempt to reduce the number of births by poor women, and, in fact, punish them for reproducing in the first place, no pronatalist outcry took place. This is just one not-so-subtle official message about desirable versus non-desirable motherhoods.


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Correspondence to Anna Gotlib.

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Gotlib, A. “But You Would Be the Best Mother”: Unwomen, Counterstories, and the Motherhood Mandate. Bioethical Inquiry 13, 327–347 (2016).

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