According to The Creation of Patriarchy, by Gerda Lerner, patriarchy began with the rise of agriculture, when women’s capacity to procreate became vital to the survival and flourishing of rooted communities. In essence, women’s bodies became first property of the community, and then, with marriage, property of their husbands. While you may agree or disagree with this theory, it’s hard to deny that the oppression of women has gone hand in hand with women’s capacity to procreate.
If we pursue this point, we may also observe that natalism has been used politically to justify women’s oppression, through nationalism and the need for more workers, more soldiers and more consumers. That the more a society needs children, the more women’s role of fulfilling motherhood is emphasized and enforced. Another fact which cannot fail to attract our attention is that partner violence is linked with unwanted pregnancies:
[A] compelling argument can be made of the indirect mechanism through which the climate of fear and control surrounding abusive relationships could limit women’s ability to control their fertility. Lack of fertility control can lead to unintended pregnancies, which are also associated with adverse outcomes for women’s and infant health, especially in developing countries. The association between intimate partner violence and unintended pregnancy also suggests serious social effects spawned by a cycle of unintended childbearing in abusive households.
The ownership of women’s bodies, the enforcement of motherhood, and partner violence are all fundamental feminist issues. Therefore I think we can come to the conclusion that natalism is profoundly anti-feminist.
Natalists may reply that partner violence is not the way they want women to have children. But since natalist arguments typically ignore women’s and children’s well-being, it seems to me that such a reply would miss the point. Indeed, to posit the creation of children as a moral principle by itself entails opposing the well-being of women and children: the health and well-being of women who go through pregnancy and childbirth, the psychological health and well-being of women who must care for children whether or not they have any ability or will to do so, and the health and well-being of children who are either born compromised or who are destined to experience disease, hardships or poverty.
Note that the opposite is not true: antinatalism is not inherently feminist or anti-feminist. One antinatalist can see women as the main perpetrators of procreation, and therefore as the enemy. Another antinatalist can see women as the victims of procreation, and therefore see antinatalism not only as an ethical issue but also as a gender issue. These two views don’t necessarily contradict each other: a victim can also be a perpetrator, as we see for instance in internalized misogyny or internalized racism. But either way, I see all of us as victims of procreation, men and women, although women suffer more in its name than men. Most of us do internalize natalist propaganda and evaluations, and that is unfortunate, but it doesn’t in any way change the fact that we are all fundamentally victimized.
Given all the facts, it’s not surprising that second wave feminists (who were right about most things) thought that motherhood was a raw deal, and tried to attack the undeservedly high status of motherhood. Nowadays, the pressure on women is even greater because they’re supposed to both have a career and be mothers. So it is perhaps not that surprising that it’s men who want children more nowadays, although the percentage of acceptance for both genders is still very high:
Lauren is part of a growing cohort of women: those in their late 20s and early 30s who aren’t sure about — or are decidedly against — becoming mothers. In a nationally representative survey of single, childless people in 2011, more men than women said they wanted kids. (On the other hand, more women reported seeking independence in their relationships, personal space, interests, and hobbies.) A different poll from 2013 echoed those findings, with more than 80 percent of men saying they’d always wanted to be a father or at least thought they would be someday. Just 70 percent of women felt the same.
Women in general are starting to get a grasp of the problem, although they are still psychologically pressured to pursue the natalist party line. And men, well, have no reason to feel particularly responsible about it. After all, the procreation is done mostly for their benefit, not their wives’. Not to mention that men as a class aren’t particularly known for their sense of responsibility: just look at the most masculine institutions we have, sports teams, the military, the cops, which all not only lack any sense of responsibility (except for an abstract concept of “sportsmanship,” for sports teams), but glorify that fact.