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  • Neither Fruitful Nor Multipyling
  • Anne M. Boylan (bio)
Elaine Tyler May. Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness. New York: Basic Books, 1995. xii + 318 pp. Appendix, notes, and index. $24.00.

Elaine Tyler May’s new book is certainly timely. We live in an era when childlessness, whether voluntary or involuntary, is a regular subject for public comment. In January 1996 alone, for example, the New York Times ran a four-day series describing “The Fertility Market,” an op-ed piece defending voluntary childlessness, several letters responding to that piece (including one from a proud mother of fourteen children who counted among her achievements the possibility of spawning a thousand descendants), and a magazine column in which a man rendered sterile by treatments for leukemia described with wit and wistfulness a visit to his “future children”: stored sperm. All this in addition to the regular advertisements offering sterilization through vasectomy or laparoscopy, or selling parenthood by means of donor eggs or sperm. A nuanced, balanced, and accessible history of the topic has long been needed, and May’s book fills the void nicely.

Much of May’s story is coterminous with the twentieth century. As she points out in her brief overview of earlier eras, for most of their history, Americans assumed that infertility was untreatable and believed that it always wore a female visage. The “barren” woman was a staple of lore and literature; in men, potency was equated with fertility. George Washington, for example, attributed the infertility of his marriage to some defect in Martha, even though she had borne four children during her first marriage. Remedial efforts leaned heavily toward prayer, resignation, or both; May finds scant evidence of folk practices designed to prevent or cure barrenness. Social customs that encouraged various forms of child-sharing, from indenture and apprenticeship to fosterage and informal adoption, permitted all adults to participate in the rearing of children. At the same time, voluntary childlessness among the married remained virtually unknown until the nineteenth century, when a few utopian groups (such as the Shakers and the Oneida community) consciously experimented with reproductive control. “Large-scale [End Page 316] reproductive engineering” (p. 36) is a very recent phenomenon in the United States.

By focusing on “reproductive engineering” rather than simply “barrenness” or “infertility,” May is able to encompass a range of historical phenomena, including forced sterilization and compulsory parenthood. Her argument is significant and compelling: efforts to control fertility and to treat infertility are powerfully shaped by the political and social ideologies that surround parenthood. Because many twentieth-century Americans “believe that parenthood is a status that can be chosen but must also be deserved,” May notes, questions about who “deserves” to experience this “major marker of adulthood” (p. 9) spark public discussion and shape public policy. But because those discussions are conducted in coded symbolic language—think of current debates over “welfare reform”—the underlying contradictions are usually obscured.

May brings the book’s themes together with special effectiveness in two chapters covering the early-twentieth-century eugenics movement and its inverse, “negative eugenics” (p. 125). Fearing “race suicide” if the marriage and birth rates among American-born whites continued to fall as they were falling at the turn of the century, advocates of eugenics attempted to promote “Better Babies and Fitter Families” through careful breeding of “human stock” (p. 64). The logical next step—forced sterilization—was a small one. Although it was but one of the “political, institutional, medical and legislative measures that encouraged some Americans to become parents but prevented others from doing so” (p. 62), the impact of forced sterilization fell heavily upon African American and Native American women, and on poor white women labeled “feebleminded.” Middle-class white wives encountered such policies very differently: expected to accept their destinies as mothers, they found themselves damned for selfishness if they bore no children, subjected to new medical techniques if they were involuntarily childless, and, ironically, denied elective sterilization if they sought it. The catalogue of horror stories in these chapters is chilling: the civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer “hospitalized for the removal of a small uterine tumor [in 1961, and...

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pp. 316-320
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