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Barren in the Promised Land


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Table of Contents

The public and private stake in reproduction; barren to infertile - childlessness before the 20th century; the "Race Suicide" panic - eugenics and the pressure to procreate; unfit for parenthood - class, race and compulsory sterilization; the baby craze - the rise of compulsory parenthood; infertility - Freud in the bedroom, sex at the clinic; childfree - the revolt against the baby boom; designers genes - the baby quest and the reproductive fix. Appendix: a note on the sample of letters.

About the Author

Elaine Tyler May is Professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota.


Voluntary childlessness, compulsory sterilization, contraception, abortion, infertility, and childbearing have all played significant and sometimes shameful roles in America's social development. This book examines reproduction as a tool of political and social control from Colonial times to the present. Children were an economic necessity and a communal responsibility during the Colonial period, but an expanding economy and a changing society made family life private and parenthood the province of the worthy. May, a social historian, uses historical sources and responses to an author's query to illustrate changing attitudes toward childlessness. Unlike Susan S. Lang's Women Without Children (Pharos Bks., dist. by St. Martin's, 1991), which deals only with the psychological aspects, this book places childlessness within a social and historical context, providing an added dimension. An interesting addition to women's studies and social science collections.‘Barbara Bibel, Oakland P.L., Oakland, Ca.

May documents a continuing American obsession with reproduction and shows how this public embrace of childbearing has inflicted anguish on childless women across the centuries. -- Susan Chira * New York Times Book Review *
Through rich anecdotes from the past and the testimonies of more than 500 contemporary Americans who do not have children, [May] creates a compelling portrait of the growing isolation of the childless. -- Hagar Scher * Ms. Magazine *
The first major historical study of childlessness in the United States...[Barren in the Promised Land] provides an intriguing analysis of shifts in public attitudes and values toward parenthood, while surveying developments in reproductive interventions. Most important, this engaging book establishes the importance of the changing practices and meanings of childbearing and fertility for American history. -- Lynn Weiner * Journal of American History *
[I]t is in her analysis of the new cultural divide between the child-seekers and the child-free that May is most interesting...Having carried out extensive archive research when describing childlessness in past centuries, May based her study of the 1990s on correspondence from 500 men and women who answered her request for personal testimony...[which] lend[s] an otherwise fact-laden tome the vivid colours of oral history. -- Cristina Odone * New Statesman *
Everyone who thinks about childbearing--in the personal sense of whether or when to have children, or in the context of social policy choices, including legislation to support parenting or encourage birth control--will soon be talking about this book. -- Linda K. Kerber, University of Iowa
A powerful and sensitive chronicle of America's struggle to deal with the issue of childlessness, giving us new insight into how race, economic status, and changing cultural norms have shaped the way we feel about women bearing children. -- William H. Chafe, Duke University

``Do we want children?'' This major question has only recently been asked in our society. As May, professor of American studies at the University of Minnesota, points out in this well-thought-out analysis, childbearing was an economic necessity until this century. After WWII, the family became the center of social status and stability. ``Procreation shifted from a matter of survival and necessity to a source of expansion, national identity, and personal happiness.'' In the domestic ecstasy of the '50s, those without were considered at best handicapped, at worst deviant. And now the pendulum swings back. In the '70s, the concept of ``childfree'' emerged, preferred over the term``childless'' because the latter ``implies that one's natural state is to have children.'' May cites Ellen Peck (The Baby Trap), who claims, ``The men I meet who don't have children talk about their wives. The men who have kids ask me out.'' May takes readers through the shifts in opinion over the centuries, from barren women being perceived as witches to childfree women being accused of hedonism and self-indulgence; from pregnancy as a life-threatening state to designer genes and contemporary couples unwilling to accept the prospect of no children. She doesn't take sides but places the available information at the disposal of her readers. Photos. (June)

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