Rosemary Agonito is the author of The Last Taboo: Saying No to Motherhood, which argue that women may be better off if they do not have children; here is a link to her website:
Q: What inspired you to write The Last Taboo?
A: I began to notice the incredible impact children have on women’s lives after my two children entered the picture (one biological, one an international adoption). Over the years, I’ve been exposed to countless women from all walks of life in my college teaching and training work as a gender issues specialist– executive women, professional women, rank and file working women, poor women, displaced homemakers, women trying to re-enter the workplace in middle age, older women. The motherhood theme was always there, an integral part of these women’s stories, often in a negative sense. And for those women who, for whatever reason, did not have children, there was the stigma, the guilt, the sense that something must be wrong with them.
My work in Women’s Studies and my writings also provided many questions. My first book, History of Ideas on Woman, traced what the so-called great thinkers had said about women from ancient times. Mostly, it wasn’t a pretty picture. Women’s inferiority and subordination, their “different,” lesser nature, seemed more and more like it related to women’s role as mother in the eyes of these men.
I grew up in an immigrant Italian home and the idea that children would not be a part of a woman’s life was unthinkable. So over many years and much experience, I became fascinated by motherhood and the motherhood “requirement.” I came at last to see the woman = mother thing as flatly wrong and completely a function of intense cultural and religious conditioning of girls. Given this profound conditioning from the time a little girl gets her first doll, it’s a stretch to say that motherhood is a choice for most women. So I wrote The Last Taboo: Saying No to Motherhood.
Q: Why do you think any woman would be pro life?
A: Actually, I was pro life in my youth. I really believed that the fetus is a baby, a real human being. So killing it was murder. That’s what pro life people believe and if you believe that, you try to save the baby.
But I came to see two things early on. (1) A zygote, two cells, is not equivalent to a human being, any more than an acorn is a tree. The zygote will, at some point, become a human being if the conditions are right, just as the acorn will become a tree – but a whole lot of development has to occur for that zygote to become a human being. (2) Women matter in this whole process and that’s what so-called pro life people don’t acknowledge. It’s a woman who bears the burden of nine months and its physical repercussions. It’s a woman whose life will be dramatically impacted by a child. She will spend the next two decades caring for that child, often alone. She will not be able to do much of anything in her life without factoring in that child at every point. A woman is an actual living human being; that zygote is a potential human being. Sadly, pro life does not mean pro woman’s life.
Now, why a woman would be pro life is more baffling. She should understand the second point. Unfortunately we’ve not been very good historically at identifying with other women or supporting each other. We tend to identify with the men in our lives and too often we are less supportive of each other. Which is why the call for sisterhood has been so important in the women’s movement.
Q: What kind of research did you do for the book?
A: I was seeing all this negative motherhood stuff in women’s lives that conflicted with all those glorious motherhood myths in our culture and media. I wanted to get at the truth about motherhood. What did mothers really experience? How did children really affect their lives? So I dug deep into the data – research and surveys on motherhood going back for decades. I was surprised at the mountain of data out there. I tried not to rely on a single study or a single survey on any point, but I looked at the data over time – multiple studies, multiple surveys. This meant finding out what women themselves had to say.
I also collected, over time, the stories of women I met or read about. These stories form an integral part of the book along with the data. The book is as much about the real lives of women as it is about what the data show.
Q: What changes have you seen in the women’s rights movement over the years?
A: Lots. I remember the days when we marched in the streets and politicians paid attention – at least more than they do now. We had consciousness raising sessions that showed women they were not alone in their feelings and fears. We met often and plotted strategies. There were multiple support organizations for every walk of women’s lives. For example, I belonged to a women business owners’ support group when I ran my consulting business. There was an active Women’s Commission appointed by the mayor here in Syracuse and a sex equity panel that advised the NY State education commissioner on sex equity in the classroom. It was a vibrant time full of activity on behalf of women. Most of that is gone. TV even changed briefly. We protested women being portrayed as sex objects and actually made a difference, for a very brief time, in TV programing. Strong women began to appear. That didn’t last. Today women are showing cleavage all over TV and media – it’s seems to be a requirement that women be sex objects, even women who do the news! Now little girls and teen girls are sexualized. This is deadly. As long as women are seen as physical beings (sex objects) and their function is biological (motherhood/breeding), how will women ever be seen as fully human, which entails rationality above all?
I remember when the movement briefly started to talk about the oppressive features of motherhood and the pro-family folks came down hard on that. MS. magazine started putting cooing babies on its cover in response. I can’t get MS. to review The Last Taboo. Maybe they fear a backlash since the book is assumed to be an attack on mothers. It’s not.
I know there is a young women’s movement today. But where is the fire? Where’s the presence in daily life? At the height of the women’s movement in the 70s and 80s, it was everywhere, making waves, raising hackles. I was glad to see a bit of the old fire in the campus sexual assault protests and that’s good. I hope for more from our young people.
Q: Who benefits economically from making woman feel guilty about not wanting children?
A: Our economy depends on consumption and you need lots of people to consume goods. It’s as simple as that, I think. We’ve seen countries provide incentives to women when the birth rate drops dramatically. Of course, that’s short term thinking. Long term, overpopulation is a disaster economically and in every way since overpopulation lies at the heart of the destruction of the environment and the human species itself.
And probably men have an economic interest. The more women at home raising kids, the fewer women in the workplace competing with them.
Q: What are some of the benefits to women of not having children?
A: Freedom is the primary benefit. Children, much as we may love them, constrain women who still pretty much bear the whole burden of raising those kids. Without children a woman is freer to realize her full potential. As I say in The Last Taboo, each human life is complex and capable of being lived on many levels. The more constrained a life is, the less able it is to fully develop. Work is critically important in every human life since, ideally, work entails the realization of each person’s talents and skills. Raising children involves developing those children, servicing their needs. It’s all consuming and it can easily inhibit a woman’s ability to develop herself. Childfree women don’t have to cope with those constraints.
There are lots of other benefits of a childfree life. There’s the ability to fulfill herself. The myth is that children fulfill women, but in fact, children require SELF-sacrifice. Mom is not defined by her SELF but by her relationship to a child. A childfree woman has an easier chance at creating herself. Another benefit is financial – children are money pits.
Women without children also have a better shot at happiness. Research is very clear that childfree women and couples are happier than women and couples with children. Childfree women also have the satisfaction of knowing they are not contributing to overpopulation which is rapidly dooming the environment and human species.
Q: What are some of the psychological effects on children whose parents didn’t want them?
A: How awful for a child to be unwanted! I devote a chapter of The Last Taboo, “Godzilla Mom,” to the impact on children. These children suffer from low self-esteem, a sense of unworthiness, a feeling of not belonging. They are unloved, insecure, and emotionally deprived. These are scars that will follow them throughout their lives and will most likely impact any children they have.
And beyond the psychological effects, there’s the very real physical abuse and neglect that afflicts so many unwanted children. The CDC estimates that 20% of American children suffer direct physical abuse or neglect.
Q: Why do you think the conservatives have been successful in infiltrating the religious right; wasn’t Christ a socialist?
A: This is a big, important question. I wrote a book that tackles this question, Hypocrisy, Inc.: How the Religious Right Fabricates Christian Values and Undermines Democracy. There are lots of reasons why the religious right and conservatives joined forces in the 1970s – a shared belief in traditional values and an aversion toward the growing disrespect for authority and toward countercultural social movements, including anti-war protests, the women’s movement, civil rights for blacks, promiscuity and free love, increasing drug use, moral decay, and more.
Anyone who seriously reads the Gospels (which the religious right accepts as literal truth) knows that what Jesus preached and modeled bears no relationship to the “family values” mantra of the religious right. Jesus was a radical in his lifestyle and his teaching. He left his family, on more than one occasion refusing to acknowledge his mother and father, became homeless by choice, lived a celibate life, never married, had no children, preached the virtue of poverty and rejection of worldly goods, practiced no trade and had no income, survived off the charity of strangers, hung with people considered disreputable – sinners and outcasts – and engaged in behavior considered scandalous in his day, often shocking even his own followers. While the religious right obsesses over abortion and homosexuality, Jesus never speaks of either in the Gospels, though both were practiced in his day. And yes, Jesus’ followers lived a communal lifestyle, holding belongings in common, sharing in all things, and above all, giving to the poor.
As for women, Jesus is truly radical. He never preaches motherhood as woman’s role, even publically rejecting the chance to praise his own mother as mother. He doesn’t accept the concept of nuclear family, but insists over and over that the community is the family and that all are equal brothers and sisters. He rejects patriarchy, telling his followers to call no man “father” since there is only one Father and he is in heaven. Women are again and again treated as equals, never consigned to the home, included in theological discussions, encouraged to learn and be active, urged to do all the things men do (teach, preach, travel and convert) – all unacceptable at the time. . . . Don’t get me started.
Q: If this earth is a living organism are humans parasites?
A: If we didn’t start out that way, we have certainly become parasites. We take from the earth and give little back. Our misuse and destruction of earth’s resources, our failure to replenish earth’s stores, our failure to use only what we need, has caused us to destroy whole species of plants and animals. We have long since passed sustainability. Put simply, human consumption is no longer balanced by earth’s capacity to produce our needs and take in our wastes. Sustainability requires a balance between human demands on the environment (food, shelter, etc.) and the area needed to meet those demands and absorb human wastes. Not since the 1980s has humanity’s use of natural resources matched actual global supply.
Overpopulation sits at the heart of this problem and climate change. We add one billion people to the earth roughly every 12 years. Yet another reason to say no to motherhood.
Q: How did Sarah Palin happen?
A: John McCain’s poor judgment? Fox views? Oopps, “news.” Life is a comedy? Sadly, too many people see the world in black and white, without nuance or shades of gray. Simplistic approaches to complex problems have their appeal. Also, Palin is a clear example of the power of the religious right. Her unabashed evangelical views won the hearts of evangelicals, who became her most ardent supporters.
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