Why is the happily childless woman seen as the unicorn of society?

Non-mothers are often told they'll "change their mind when they meet the right person". Between that and being forced to worry who will visit you in your old age, it's no wonder society seems to believe the happily childless woman is more myth than realit

Being a parent isn’t always a walk in the park, according to the World Happiness Database unveiled in Rotterdam this week. In fact, it could be bad for your mental health: one of the activities which sends happiness levels plummeting, according to the research, is having a child (although, it hastens to add, your happiness increases when they grow up and leave home - which hardly seems a glowing recommendation for having them in the first place). Meanwhile, it was reported by the BBC that China has just passed what it is euphemistically calling the "Elderly Rights Law", a piece of legislation that makes it compulsory for adult children to visit their parents in a country with a rapidly ageing (and lonely) population. In other words, you sacrifice happiness to parenthood in the prime of your life, enjoy a brief but halcyon retirement, then are abandoned in your twilight years to the extent that the government has to force your children to pop in for a cup of tea. No wonder we’re all procreating less.

But the fact remains that the "childless by choice" - or, as some prefer it, "child-free" - are still looked upon as dangerous oddities, possibly with some sort of social disease. Even worse is the female half of the dreaded "childless by choice" couple, all settled down with someone they love in a perfectly good home with a spare bedroom that could be easily transformed into a nursery and just downright refusing to warm up a bun in her oven. "Tick tock", publications aimed at thirtysomething women sing-song, as you scour the magazine rack for something that doesn’t make you want to throw up, move countries, cry, or all of the above. "Your ovaries are getting old! Your eggs won’t last forever! You’ll change your mind in a few short years - and where will you be then?"

It’s beyond comprehension to most of the media, of course, that women without children might not end up crying outside the local school-gates every morning before being shooed away by the caretaker. The "evolutionary science, hideously misapplied" brigade have been banging the "naturally maternal" drum for decades as an explanation for all possible facets of female behaviour. Through this lens, the female role in a heterosexual relationship is to become your male partner’s new mother, helpfully cooking and cleaning and facilitating his life for him while he has fun and plays with his friends outside. The "maternal instinct" apparently inherent in all women has been used as a way to keep mothers out of the workplace and discriminate against fathers who want equal custody of their children. The belief that we are essentially born to be baby incubators crops up again and again amongst anti-abortion debaters, and is one reason why new mothers often report feeling ashamed of postnatal depression. After all, if you’re supposed to be in your element but you feel like crap, then surely you’re a Darwinian failure of the first order - never mind if you opt out of having the baby altogether.

All of this contributes to the idea of the happily childless woman as the unicorn of society. A dedicated bachelor is a good-time guy, and a married man without kids is hardly a talking point. But a bachelorette is more likely to be seen as tragic, bitter, yearning for the family that she hasn’t yet had the opportunity to create; her coupled-up counterpart a perpetual mother-in-waiting. And why should this be the case, on an overpopulated planet with a surplus of poverty, starvation and greenhouse gases? Really, it shouldn’t be the child-free who have to justify their position - it should be those who choose to bring others into the world without good reason beyond "I JUST WANT TO SEE MINI-ME". Yes, your unfortunate nose might look hilarious on an unsuspecting infant’s face - but is it really worth the extra carbon dioxide and the toe-curlingly boring hours spent poring through stacks of GCSE retake papers? After all, the lifetime cost of raising a child in the UK is now £222,458, which is a hell of a lot of luxury holidays and stiff gins down the drain, not to mention the damage those little darlings can do to your nether regions on their way into the world.

Women we’ve spoken to through The Vagenda have told us that their own doctors have made it difficult for them to undergo sterilisation by condescendingly insisting that they will "only want it reversed in a few short years", as if they had chosen the procedure on a whim. Others have been told by relatives that they’re not performing their "womanly duty" by shunning motherhood - seriously - and still more have contended with the mind-bending accusations that they’re "being selfish" or "will get bored in your marriage if you don’t". By far the most common amongst our Twitter followers, however, was experience of the smug assurance that "you’ll change your mind once you meet the right person", as if a Baby Alarm will go off in every woman’s mind the moment they meet their God-given soulmate and embark upon Happily Ever After. This is apparently now wheeled out more often even than the old and reliable, "Who will look after you in your old age?", which still persists despite the fact that very few of us are living on isolated farmland dependent on continuous manual labour in countries without some semblance of a national health service.

So how to stop the constant barrage of criticism if you are to live life as a contented child-free female human being? Firstly, ignore all magazines aimed at the thirtysomething demographic: there are far too many allusions to "Fertility O’Clock" and "foods to maximise your spouse’s sperm count". Secondly, have faith in social progression: a recent survey covered by the Washington Post found that the belief that "mothers are more natural parents" is much more prevalent amongst older groups of society, as it fades in the younger (two-thirds of women aged 65+ agreed with the statement, compared with about half of woman in younger age groups.) Meanwhile, grit your teeth while people loudly worry about who’s going to visit you in your nursing home and own the choice that’s right for you. Because £222,458 later, who’s to say that THEY’RE not the ones who’ll be left wanting to change their minds?

Now read Lulu Le Vay's call for "Mumsnot", in which she asks whether if a woman doesn't have any kids, she still has any value.

The happily childless, or child-free, woman is more common than you think. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.