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So someone claimed that ‘broody feminists’ are being silenced…

Yesterday I read an article by a ‘broody feminist‘ I wasn’t, initially, sure what one of these was, so I clicked through wondering if it might be a new faction of feminism about which I could have an opinion (I think I probably fall into the category of ‘Opinionated feminists‘, or somewhere on the venn diagram where they cross over with ‘Drunk feminists’ and ‘Feminists who like crisps’). It turns out that a ‘broody feminist’ is just a feminist who wants children. The author, Charlotte Gill, explains that:

“as feminism has progressed, saying you want babies has become deeply unfashionable – synonymous with “I have no career ambition.” On the other hand, a child-free existence has been painted as progressive and exciting, sold successfully by celebrities like Jennifer Aniston and Kylie Minogue.”

Which is interesting, because it’s not really true. Sure, it is very slowly becoming more acceptable for women to say ‘I don’t want kids’, and we’re no longer treated like we’re the gruesome offspring of the Childcatcher and Cruella DeVille. But I think calling it ‘fashionable’ is quite a leap – given Daily Mail headlines that screech at us about our biological clocks, and misguided advice by people like Kirstie Allsopp about how we should all have a baby or two before we try and get a degree. I won’t spend too long on the truth or otherwise of the argument, because I’m sure you know that while many people are fighting to emphasise that you don’t have to choose to procreate, there’s still an assumption that you will. There’s definitely not, as Charlotte seems to be arguing, a dominant feminist view that parenthood is a Bad Choice for everyone.

If I could wave a magic wand that changed our narrative around children, I wouldn’t be arguing that fewer women should choose to have them, or that we should all have them at certain times or what have you, I’d change it to this:

  • Having kids is one of many options when it comes to making life choices.
  • It shouldn’t be assumed that anyone either will or won’t have kids: no matter what their gender, relationship status, etc.

In short, having kids is a bit like training for a marathon – it can be incredibly rewarding, it’s definitely admirable, but it’s also a lot of effort so not everyone wants to do it. Anyway, I’m not here to talk about kids – have ’em, don’t have ’em, whatever makes you happy. Here I want to talk about silence…

“Stop silencing me!”

While I haven’t noticed a particularly strong surge in motherhood-hating feminism, I have noticed a rise in the number of people who claim they’re being ‘silenced.’ In this article, Charlotte laments:

“There’s a rhetoric out there that’s silencing broody feminists.”

I feel mean for picking on Charlotte, so I really hope that on the off-chance she finds this she doesn’t take it personally. I picked her article because this worry that one’s views are being silenced is happening in a lot of places, and hers is a neat example of the silencing fallacy,  so I thought I’d have a punt. Here goes…

Sometimes people are genuinely silenced – to take an extreme example, the government could lock you up or deport you for speaking out against them. A much less extreme example: I used to work in a job in which people would make ridiculous suggestions for projects. Instead of passing them on to senior management I’d occasionally quietly delete the emails, because I knew the idea was shit and I didn’t want to have to waste time proving it by implementation. Alongside this genuine silencing, there is also the silencing fallacy: the idea that your views are being stamped on when in fact they’re just being challenged. Either because people disagree with your view (which can be as simple as saying ‘you’re wrong’ to something much more worrying like threats of violence), or because your view used to be the default, and isn’t any more. Threats tip something more towards ‘silencing’ territory, but I’m not sure it’s relevant in this case.

It used to be that almost everyone was expected to have children. In some countries and cultures it still is, but in the UK, broadly speaking, we’re challenging that. While it’s still overwhelmingly assumed that people will have kids at some point, as more and more of us say ‘I don’t think I want to, thanks’ we move closer to a nice middle ground, where we understand that it’s a choice which works for some and not for others. In the process, sure, you’ll get a few people who are overly shitty about it (and I cringe about some things I’ve said about it in the past), who make jokes about kids, or parenthood, and imply that it’s a horrible, icky choice. I think this happens because, if you’re trying to chip away at a giant assumption, sometimes you hit a bit too hard and chip off more than you’d like. Few people (although obviously there are always some dicks) are telling you that you can’t make your choice, they’re just fighting hard to be allowed to make their own.

So: silenced? No. Challenged? Yes. In her article, Charlotte gives a few examples:

“I can’t help feeling in campaigners’ determination to appease sprog-shunning women, they have accidentally demonised and neglected those of us who marvel at small cuddly things. Those of us who don’t mind photos of other people’s kids bombarding Facebook, and delight in celebrity news about babies (how I cooed yesterday over photos over Lily Cole’s squirt) are now being relegated to the uncool, unambitious, uninteresting, unsexy dustbin.”

I think what she’s saying here (beyond implying that we ‘sprog-shunning women’ are not capable of marveling at ‘small cuddly things’ – *narrows eyes and puts on Cruella DeVille costume*) is that not everyone enjoys having their facebook feed filled with babies. Which is true. But it’s not necessarily part of a parental-hatred conspiracy. I’d guess it’s a combination of the fact that:

  1. Those of us who don’t have children are put under mounting pressure from parents/friends/others when our peers start procreating. When my friends and siblings and cousins and etc started having babies, there was a marked increase in the number of times I had to sit through a ‘you’re not getting any younger’ conversation.
  2. Other people’s children aren’t always exciting. See also: that marathon training we mentioned earlier. A facebook feed that’s dedicated to any one single topic is going to be less exciting. In my opinion.

The fact is though, these pictures are all still there. The celebrity baby news and the facebook feed baby-shots: all still there. ‘Silenced’ would be if they were removed. ‘Silenced’ would be if people who didn’t want to see it took any action beyond just tutting or having the occasional moan. I’m struggling, really, to find any examples in the article that would come anywhere near a good silencing. Maybe this?

“At a careers conference, or an outing with friends, you will never hear a woman say to another (never mind to a man): “My real ambition in life is to have children.””

But no. I’m not entirely sure why you’d make that statement at a careers conference, but let’s assume you do: no one’s saying you can’t. It’s not like she’s stood up on a podium, shouted this at the top of her voice, and been dragged off stage. She just hasn’t heard anyone else saying it aloud. When she says it aloud, in IndyVoices, do people come and shut her down? No. They comment, they may share it, or they might write blog posts like this one which open up the discussion: discussion is not censorship. And if you think it is, please feel free to silence me by sharing this blog post on your social networks, and articulating how strongly you disagree.

That’s why I’m often suspicious of claims of  ‘silencing’, particularly when they’re published in the mainstream press. When people say that they’re being shut down, or censored, often what they mean is that their views – which may previously have been held by a lot of people – are not as popular as they used to be. The narrative is changing, focus is shifting, and other views are being heard either in their place or alongside. Like I say, there are plenty of examples of people being genuinely silenced, so I’m not saying that all claims of ‘silence’ are false, just that often cries of ‘silencing!’ are used when what’s actually happening is ‘debate.’

And if there’s one thing you can say for debate, it’s that its rarely ever silent.


  • Tim says:

    To often people whose opinions or positions are in the majority see the world as a zero sum game.

    If more people are accepting that not having kids is okay then it MUST mean that fewer people are accepting of those who want kids. If they are not being accepted then that’s tantamount to silencing.

    Both those assumptions are false. I wonder if it stems from our tendency to express things in percentages. Percentages make a nice digestable chunk of information, but they skew things. If “my side” goes from 90% of the population to 80% then clearly I’ve lost something. It ignores the fact that the entire population has increased.

    • Girl on the net says:

      That’s interesting, and I think I agree, although on the percentages thing I suspect it’s often more to do with attitudes: if the prevailing attitude has been not only “I want to have kids” but “everyone must” then I can see how people may think that any move away from that is necessarily going to include the latter part – “everyone must.” I actually think the way the debate is going around having children is really healthy because it’s mostly managed to avoid that prescriptive stuff. It’s moving less towards “here’s the right way to live your life” and closer to “there are loads of different ways – pick what works for you.” Not sure if I’ve explained that very well, I’m a bit hungover, but hope you get what I mean =)

  • Peter says:

    Wonderful blog entry! Completely spot on.

  • J N says:

    I am facebook friends with a friend-of-a-friend in her mid-to-late twenties who one day posted angrily about her dislike for feminists and feminism. When I was in my mid-to-late twenties I was (and still am) deeply grateful to the feminists who came before me, and I was curious about what she was upset about. I asked her questions and listened empathically. It turned out that the kind of life she would like most would be to be an at-home wife and mother, supporting the family from the home while her husband supported the family by earning money. She believes that feminism and feminists have taken that option away from her and made it so people look on her with contempt for it.

    Unsurprisingly, I see it differently. I personally know a lot of people who really love the earner + homemaker family structure, and, particularly if the family has two spouses who have different personal strengths, it can work really well. However, the only people I’ve known who could make it work have been either very well-off or exceptionally good at making a little money go a long way. The economics don’t work now like they did when this was more common, particularly the economics of falling wages (particularly falling wages relative to housing prices). I think if the wage structure were still like it was in the 1960s when second-wave feminism was getting its start, only with the pay equality feminists worked for, that there would be a lot more families with part-time or full-time homemakers, and probably more with men doing some or all of it (though I doubt it would be as common for men as for women to be the person at home).

    This particular woman had a medical condition that often leads to fertility problems, and at the time she was dating a man who is not especially commitment-orientated and who works in a field that is unlikely to pay enough to support a family without his wife working as well. In that conversation, I saw her grief and distress that she was unlikely to get the kind of life she had dreamed of, and I was sad for that. I think she wanted something to blame her sadness on, and women who celebrate other ways of living and critique the single vision of women as housewives…well, we’re easier targets than economic changes.

    There is also the tendency to remember some things more than others. I’ve never wanted children, and I’m surrounded by parenthood stuff.

    In summary, I think she felt silenced by feminists. And I’m pretty confident we weren’t silencing her.

    • Aj says:

      However, the only people I’ve known who could make it work have been either very well-off or exceptionally good at making a little money go a long way.

      It could be argued that this is the fault of feminism. It is, after all, a direct result of the two income trap.

      On the other hand, coordination problems always arise the more freedom people have, which makes it very easy to fall into non-optimal holes.

      • Girl on the net says:

        I think the two-income trap is a massive issue, particularly when you look at things like the cost of homes (rented as well as bought), although I think laying the blame at the feet of feminism is probably a bit strong. It’s a combination of many factors, and I think that one of them is the idea that roles which are seen as traditionally ‘female’ are also less likely to be paid highly. I was having a discussion with a mate last night who said that if we want to see more men in positions such as primary school teaching, we just need to start paying primary teachers really well so they’ll have an incentive. I think things like that wrap up a huge number of assumptions (that women aren’t as motivated by money, that men are *only* motivated by money, etc etc), and I think this is something we need to tackle if we want to redress wage inequality, and also hopefully move towards a society where people can have a family life which doesn’t require two incomes.

        Regarding the double income thing generally, without wanting to sound like a total cliche – what about the men? One of the great things that has come out of the fact that women can now work (albeit not for equal pay but obviously we’re working on that) is that men now have more choice too. This debate about whether couples should or shouldn’t have children is pretty much always focused on women: will they choose to have kids or not? But men have been freed by this change too – they now have more options, and although it’s not yet totally equal, it’s certainly more accepted that men may have homemaking ambitions of their own.

        I’m sad for your mate JN – I can see a lot of people thinking ‘oh well where has feminism got me?’ if their dream looks like it more closely fits the way life was like back in the fifties. And it’s a legitimate dream and a legitimate choice – you’re probably more patient than I’d have been, because I think my struggle is in understanding how people don’t see that it’s a choice. In any situation where everyone’s expected to behave the same way, some people are going to be happy because that’s the way they would have chosen. Ideally, of course, everyone gets to choose and everyone gets what they want. I feel what we have at the moment is a non-ideal but still better place, where everyone gets to choose. To help everyone get what they want I think we need a combination of lots of changes – economic, political, cultural, etc. I’m an optimist, so I reckon we’ll get there. Eventually.

        • Orathaic says:

          I also think this whole single/double wage thing ignores the fact that poor women always had to work.

          And then send their children out in their early teens to earn some money.

          Wealthy feminist men and women have the priviledge of one of them staying home to mind the kids (or paying for a child minder)

          Also, from an economist’s perspective, you can measure one thig GDP, and GDP growth can give investors confidence in your economy (the primary concern if economist being, perhaps unsurprisingly, the economy)

          But taking care of your own children doesn’t contribute to GDP (economists can’t count it because they don’t know how to measure the value) if, on the othe hand, you work and pay for child-care, then there are two wages which will count towards GDP – or infact, if you mind your neighbour’s kids for the afternoon and they do the same for yours the next one AND both are paid, then it magically counts (whereas if you do it as a favour, no GDP)

          Also note, from a government’s perspective, things which contribute towards GDP can usually be taxed. So the government has two reasons to encourage them! Better GDP numbers sounds good, and more tax take is good by pretty much any measure.

          I think all of these factors combined are far bigger than the second-wave feminists who have given more choice go wealthy women. (Actually all women have more choice, but poor people continue to have their choices limited, and it is possible that greater income disparity means more middle-class people have less choice too, ie they have to work)

          In conclusion, yes I think it is easier to find a simple explaination to direct your anger at, but no, it is never simple.

  • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

    On the silencing/censorship point: I broadly agree that being criticised is not the same as being ‘silenced’, and criticising someone is not limiting their freedom of speech: freedom of speech does not mean immunity from criticism.

    But while it’s easy to accept that as a broad principle, in practice things are slightly more complex. If expressing an opinion results in someone receiving a tirade of vitriolic criticism and outright abuse, that’s certainly going to make them less likely to express that opinion in future. So excessive/over-the-top criticism of a view can have a silencing effect, and amount to a form of soft censorship, even if no one is actually being prevented from expressing themselves.

    (You could say there’s an important distinction between criticism and abuse, and I agree; but in practice that distinction is not always easy to draw, especially on places like Twitter, where criticism is typically instant, aggressive and personal.)

    In terms of the topic here, I don’t think that women choosing to have children are being ‘silenced’ in this way (certainly not in a way to put anyone off from doing it). But some other views are (like feminist ones, all too frequently).

    There’s also the point made by Tim above that when making an ‘alternative’ choice becomes more acceptable and people get congratulated for it, some people who make the traditional ‘mainstream’ choice start to feel implicitly attacked or threatened. There’s not a lot you can do about that – it’s human nature – other than simply to reassert that there’s (usually) nothing wrong with making the mainstream choice. It’s perfectly legitimate and people should feel free to do so. The important thing is that people should *have the choice*, and all choices are worthy of respect. (But when one choice has historically faced prejudice and social discouragement, it’s not unreasonable to applaud people for making it.)

    • Girl on the net says:

      “If expressing an opinion results in someone receiving a tirade of vitriolic criticism and outright abuse, that’s certainly going to make them less likely to express that opinion in future. So excessive/over-the-top criticism of a view can have a silencing effect, and amount to a form of soft censorship, even if no one is actually being prevented from expressing themselves.”

      Yep, I agree completely. I think censorship is far more complex than just ‘you can’t say that’ – there are plenty of examples, especially recently, of large groups or organisations shouting enough vitriol and rage that I’d place it in the silencing category. But then I think there are also instances where people are legitimately and understandably angry about something, and their anger is held up by their ‘victim’ as if it’s a tool to silence, rather than a genuinely legitimate response. I can’t really work out how to define the difference between the two, but I’m guessing that it’s always going to come down to the nuance of any individual thing. i.e. some of the gamergate stuff is not only aggressive etc, it’s also deliberately intended to silence, so it’s pretty clear-cut. On the other hand, I can think of a few other cases where what’s actually happened is that someone who already has a huge platform is being protested against or disagreed with, and has played up the nature of the criticism so as to make it seem like they’re getting ‘silencing’ treatment, when actually they’re not. Trying really really hard here not to mention a specific example that’s right at the front of my mind =)

      But yeah, I agree. That’s partly why I picked this particular article – I’ve wanted to talk about silencing for a while, but I wanted to use an example that was reasonably isolated and incredibly clear-cut, because I didn’t want to get bogged down in the grey areas (and my personal biases) that come in to some of the more prominent examples of it.

      “when one choice has historically faced prejudice and social discouragement, it’s not unreasonable to applaud people for making it.”
      That’s actually not something I’d thought about here, but you’re right. Particularly in the early stages of trying to push back against the status quo, people will naturally get applause etc for doing the thing people may not expect – disproportionate to the significance of their choice, but significant because of how and when they’re doing it.

      • i think this exchange gets to the root of the ‘silencing’ phenomenon. And it is quite a funny / curious paradox.

        Seems to me the basis for all these complaints about people being silenced is, ironically, that people have more access to platforms than ever before, people have more of a voice than ever before.

        Until as recently as a decade or two ago, most of us were limited in the audience for our opinions. We could say something and it would be heard by a handful of friends and maybe someone earwigging from the next table in the pub. Now we express an opinion and it can be heard immediately by all our friends, family, workmates and casual acquaintances simultaneously, and if some of those consider your opinion worthy of sharing it can quickly escalate to thousands or even millions of people being exposed to it.

        But then where it gets really messy is that a lot of people might disagree with your opinion. They might hate your opinion. What’s worse, they are only one click away from telling you how much they hate your opinion. People being people, at least some of them might do so aggressively, crudely or rudely.

        You then quickly have this situation where people feel they cannot express their opinions because if they do, they are “silenced” by mob bullying.

        And within all these layers of paradox and irony, the worst offenders at bullying people into silence tend to be free speech obsessives. So if you express an opinion that could in any way be interpreted as a call for censorship you are likely to bring down a huge terrifying mob of bullies yelling at you to SHUT UP! peppered with death threats and obscenities and rape threats if you are a woman. That has basically been the story of Gamergate. Basically what the FREE SPEECH!!!! crowd tend to prize above all else is the freedom to shout down other people’s free speech thereby silencing them.

        So I guess the problem here is not that we all have our own opinions. It is that everyone else has their own. Hell is other people, and all that.

        [After all that, great blog, love it!]


  • Orathaic says:

    “But no. I’m not entirely sure why you’d make that statement at a careers conference, but let’s assume you do: no one’s saying you can’t.”

    Self censorship is a thing; and having been exposed to a system where it feels like your attitude is wrong can make it happen.

    Maybe it is also your own responcibility to take on the system which makes you feel this way. And maybe ‘coming out’ with an unpopular attitude is challenging regardless of the attitude, but self censorship is still censorship, right?

    And most people don’t feel empowered enough to ‘come out’ without a movement behind them, something counter to the system in play.

  • Sadly I was unable to have children which was pretty devastating when I discovered it. My husband (first husband) blamed me and became violent towards me. While someone who does not want children might get bored with being asked when they are going to start procreating, it becomes really cruel when you are challenged with such questions when you are unable to have children.

    Probably doesn’t contribute much to your article, but I wish people would think about the tragic infertility situation before asking their friends/relatives why they haven’t chosen to have children yet – with, of course, the inclusion of inevitability the word ‘yet’ implies.

    My latest husband has a built-in family and most of them have accepted me as step-mother and I simply adore taking my step great-grandchild out in his ridiculously enormous pushchair. LOL.

    The sadness passes as the years do.

    • Chris says:

      This. It’s up there among the most painful things for people who are trying to have kids and can’t, along with watching all their peers have kids :-/

      • The infertility wasn’t the biggest hurt for me, it was the blame by my pig of a husband who stopped loving me, started cheating on me and regularly violently assaulted me during sex trying to get me pregnant. With all of that going on I probably missed the opportunity to further investigate my infertility. I was 32 when we discovered the problem and 36 when I had to run, literally, for my life. The infertility faded into the background and the years outside that 4 year window were lost. This was the eighties and the fertility clinic cancelled my appointments when they discovered I was no longer in a relationship. It was an unintentional conspiracy, I suppose, and wouldn’t happen today … I would hope.

        Doesn’t happen so much now I’m older, but a very hurtful question was “didn’t you ever want children?” when I was in my 40s and 50s. I can look at it philosophically now.

        Back to a point which is relevant to GOTN’s article. Careers can get stalled by pregnancy and it certainly has an effect upon women’s pay. I had married friends in the 80s who were actually asked if they were going to have children during the next few years. They either lied or lost the jobs. Things are better now, but some firms almost certainly make the same decisions, but hide their reasoning these days. Perhaps it is understandable in small firms for which all positions are crucial to the overall success of the business. Women still get a bad deal, but you can understand the problem for a tiny firm who might need to invest two or three years in training a member of staff only to have them leave them just when they are really starting to contribute to the firm. Don’t know what the answer is, but there are two sides to that and both are damaging to women’s prospects.

        • Girl on the net says:

          Thanks for joining in Angela, and really good point – I should have mentioned in the blog post. This whole ‘you should have children’ thing so often ignores the people who can’t, and can make hurtful situations way way worse. Another reason, I think, why it’d be helpful for everyone if we stopped putting so much pressure on people to have children at all costs.

  • twigs, says:

    I think there is such a mischief and misconception around feminism, that assumes the feminism of the 1960s and 1970s is the same as it is today. The struggles women fought and their strategies and tactics then were appropriate then, but not today, and today the way feminism actually works and thinks is different, but a surprisingly high number of people don’t think past those stereotypes. Anyway my point, my sister spent ages ‘plucking up’ the courage to tell me she wanted to be a stay at home mum, (her words), she was scared I would tell her it was wrong. I was gutted, that my defence of ‘other’ lives made. her worry, that I would condemn her for turning her back on feminism, of course not I cried! it’s about choice and opportunity and knowingly making decisions and changing the structures for empowerment for all (class, race and sexuality) …. so I feel I have to do better in the future so that I explain feminism better to those around me and not confirm those stereotypes…
    ps she desperately wants to go back to work but childcare costs are too high even though she’s a teacher by training… and that is a feminist issue we can unite on :) so she has choices

  • twigs, says:

    so sorry about the typos, I went to correct them only to find it had posted already…

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