In praise of single and childfree women

Because I posted about it, and because of the web like way of internet, a day later, I’m still stuck in Elizabeth Wurtzel’s New York piece like a trapped fly.

Here is the best thing I’ve read about it, from Twitter:

Do mags ever publish cautionary 1st-person tales about men whose lives are disasters because they refused to settle down?

That Tweet was written by Sarah Eckel. A visit to Eckel’s web site reveals that she is coming out with a book next year: There’s Nothing Wrong With You. Here’s part of the description of her book:

Are you a single person who would prefer not to be? Do you spend a lot of time wondering why? Do you worry that you’re too needy, or too independent? Too picky, or too undiscerning? Too close to your opposite-sex parent, or too distant?

Funny, isn’t it? No matter what you do or who you are, there is always a pathology to neatly explain the problem. Well, I have a radical suggestion: Maybe you’re perfectly fine exactly the way you are.

Apparently, she wrote a piece for the New York Times Modern Love that now I’m dying to read.

Visiting Eckel’s web site reminded me of a post I wrote about Elizabeth Gilbert’s book: Committed on her decision to be childfree. Gilbert’s book is about being with someone but much of her book (and I think the last one in some ways, too) is also about her decision to be child free.

Reel Girl is, in many ways, a blog about parenting, yet my post about Gilbert’s happy, fulfilled childfree life is one of my most popular, most shared posts ever. Why? It makes me think that celebrations of happy childfree women are rare, too few and far between. I wonder if you don’t have kids, if you’re supposed to be unhappy about it? Or something is wrong with you, is that it?  And if you’re not with someone, are you supposed to be unhappy about that too? And what about if you’re a man?

Actress Zooey Deschanel, who– get this– actually called herself a feminist publicly– responded to a question about whether or not she would have kids:

That is so personal, and it’s my pet peeve when people press you on it. And it’s always women who get asked! Is anybody saying that to George Clooney?

What is so clear to me is that when women are not valued for being single or for being childfree, all women are not valued. If women’s worth is determined by their relationships, they have no worth at all. So, I guess that’s another reason why I wanted to defend Elizabeth Wurztel. Even though, in many ways, she perpetuates a stereotype of an unhappy single woman with that piece, in many ways she doesn’t.

Here’s a re-post of what I wrote about Elizabeth Gilbert:

Best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert says childless women are just fine

The husband, the kids, the picket fence, you know this scene. Women’s biological clocks are desperately ticking. We’re on a quest to secure a man so we can reproduce, because becoming mothers will make us truly happy and fulfilled.

While childless men manage to find a respectable place in society, often with a few publicly recognized achievements under their belts, admired, or even envied, as the self-sufficient bachelors they are; childless women remain suspect, if not total freaks. They’re often pitied; people wonder at what point in their lives they veered off onto their unnatural, unfeminine paths, becoming lonely “spinsters” or crazy cat ladies.

Best-selling, childless author of Eat, Pray, Love Elizabeth Gilbert introduces a radically different theory in her new book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage. She writes that childless women have historically served a crucial role in society, not yet publicly recognized. These women should not be scorned but celebrated for their contributions to bettering the human race.

Gilbert writes:

“If you look across human populations of all varieties, in every culture and on every continent (even among the most enthusiastic breeders in history, like the nineteenth-century Irish, or the contemporary Amish), you will find that there is a constant 10 percent of women within any population who never have children at all. The percentage never gets any lower than that, in any population whatsoever. In fact, the percentage of women who never reproduce in most societies is usually much higher than 10 percent- and that’s not just today, in the developed Western world, where childless rates among women tend to hover around 50 percent.”

Gilbert speculates that female childlessness is an evolutionary adaption:

“Maybe it’s not only legitimate for certain women to never reproduce, it’s necessary. It’s as though, as as a species, we need an abundance of responsible, compassionate, childless women to support the wider community in various ways. Childbearing and child rearing consume so much energy that the women who do become mothers quickly become swallowed up by that daunting task- if not outright killed by it.”

Elizabeth  GilbertElizabeth Gilbert

Gilbert points out that childless women have always taken on the tasks of nurturing children who are not their biological responsibilty as no other group in history has ever done, in such vocations as running schools, hospitals, and becoming midwives.

That’s all fine and good, but won’t these childless women be desperately unhappy in their old age?

Gilbert says no. Recent studies of happiness levels in America’s nursing homes show the indicators of contentment in later life are poverty and health. “Save your money, floss your teeth…you’ll be a perfectly happy old bird someday.”

Gilbert concedes that without descendants, childless women are often forgotten more quickly, but that the role they played when alive was vital. Gilbert calls these vibrant women the “Auntie Brigade.” Here are some examples she lists of their influences:

Jane Austen was a childless aunt.

Raised by childless aunts:

Leo Tolstoy

Truman Capote

the Bronte sisters

Edward Gibbon (famous historian raised by his Aunt Kitty)

John Lennon (Auntie Mimi– convinced him he would be an important artist)

F. Scott Fitzgerald (Aunt Annabel offered to pay for his college education)

Frank Lloyd Wright (first building commissioned by Aunts Jane and Nell who also ran a boarding school in Wisconsin)

Coco Chanel (Aunt Gabrielle taught her how to sew)

Virginia Woolf (muse was Aunt Coraline)

Marcel Proust (memory set off by Aunt Leonie’s madeleine)

Gilbert writes that when J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, was “asked what his creation looked like, replied his image, essence, and spirit of felicity can be found all over the world and hazily refelected ‘in the faces of many women who have no children.’ That is the Auntie brigade.”

Marcel  ProustMarcel Proust

I’ve always wondered why people get in such a tizzy about gay people, justifying their bigotry because: “It’s just not natural.” How do we know what’s natural? Is everyone supposed to pop out babies like the Duggar family and their 20 kids? Is that “natural”? And is every “natural” thing good anyway? Death is natural. Cancer can be natural.

Women without children are perfectly capable of being happy; what they’re often missing isn’t kids, but a society and a culture that values and respects them.

To all the moms out there, thank you for working hard to continue the human race. And to the “Auntie Brigade,” thank you for working hard to continue the human race.

Read my post on New York Magazine’s biased coverage of childless women here.

While I’m defending white, middle class females who write: Elizabeth Wurtzel

Elizabeth Wurtzel is getting trashed on the internet for her “self-indulgent, rambling” piece published in New York. Everyone from Jezebel to my favorite feminists writers on the internet seem to find her post ridiculous or offensive. There are some things I like about it and here they are:

Elizabeth Wurtzel is writing about what it’s like to be 44. I just turned 44 yesterday, so I suppose it’s self-indulgent of me, but its kind of fascinating for me to read about it.

I like this sentence:

I am proud that I have never so much as kissed a man for any reason besides absolute desire, and I am more pleased that I only write what I feel like and it has been lucrative since I got out of college in 1989.

How many women say that? Wurtzel is stating: “I am hot and I am smart and I make money.” That is something that has always fascinated about Wurtzel: as a Harvard grad and “attractive” best-selling writer in her twenties, the combination of brilliance and beauty defied the “smart” or “pretty” polarities women are so often forced into. It’s also still not cool or okay for women to talk about earning money at all, not to mention publicly. She does.

While Googling herself to find a piece she’d written, Wurtzel came across a Harvard doc about prominent Harvard alumni:

under the rubric of “Literature,” there was my name. That would not have been so strange except that I was the only woman and, with John Ashbery, the only person on the list still alive. It occurred to me that it had been so long since I last published a book—not since 2001—that maybe they thought I was dead. But there it was, me with T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings, William S. Burroughs, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Norman Mailer, John Updike, George Plimpton, David Halberstam, and Henry David Thoreau. It was a shockingly distinguished group to find myself lingering with. I had certainly moved up in the world by doing nothing. And maybe all it meant was that somebody in a communications office at the university had suicidal tendencies that she got through by reading my books. But I was moved nonetheless.


When I grow up, I thought, I am going to be a damn great writer.

The only woman. Wow. It sucks that she is the only woman but I am happy a woman is included. I’m glad that she told the world she was included. Who else is going to do it?

Then, there’s this:

I am committed to feminism and don’t understand why anyone would agree to be party to a relationship that is not absolutely equal. I believe women who are supported by men are prostitutes, that is that, and I am heartbroken to live through a time where Wall Street money means these women are not treated with due disdain.

Women in the world are, much of the time, economically dependent on men. Some of those women are admired for that and some of those women are derided. Wurtzel is pointing out that hypocrisy when most people ignore it.

So that’s what I like about the piece.