If you’re in possession of a uterus, at some point in your life you’ve likely gotten the message that having children isn’t a choice—it’s your duty. For well over a century, doctors, psychologists, and politicians have engaged in intense public campaigns to persuade American women to bear children, publicly exalting motherhood and warning of personal, and societal, peril if they don’t comply.
There’s a word for this: pronatalism, the promotion of baby-making for a nation’s social, political, and economic purposes. Below, a brief history of proselytizing, pseudoscience, and shaming—all committed in the name of turning women into mothers.
Throughout the 19th century, medical professionals regarded motherhood as the realization of women’s natural and divinely ordained role in society. Placed on a pedestal of sentimentality and self-sacrifice, white, middle-class Anglo-Saxon women in particular were considered uniquely suited to instilling moral values in children, all while being safely confined to the private sphere of the home. (Which wasn’t even an option for many poor women and women of color.)
But as more colleges turned coed, and women suffragists gained support for their mission to get the vote, extra efforts became necessary to direct American women toward the role of uncomplaining motherhood. In 1873, as female educators pressured Harvard University to admit women, one of the university’s professors, physician Edward H. Clarke, published Sex in Education; or, a Fair Chance for Girls, which promoted separate education for the sexes, and profiled women with different levels of schooling who had succumbed to “hysteria.” He claimed that a woman who pursued intellectual stimulus “made her brain and muscles work actively, and diverted blood and force to them,” instead of using her powers “for evolution in [the reproductive] region.” The book’s first edition sold out in a week, then went through 16 more printings.
As a surge of immigrants arrived at Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt—a progressive Republican who loved scolding women almost as much as he loved big government—began publicly chiding white American women for not breeding fast, or often, enough to outpace the newcomers. “The chief of blessings for any nation is that it shall leave its seed to inherit the land,” proclaimed Roosevelt in a 1910 speech. “The greatest of all curses is in the curse of sterility, and the severest of all condemnations should be that visited upon willful sterility.”