Women who go to university are nearly twice as likely to end up childless as those who don't, a survey has found.
Nearly half of Britain's graduates had no children by middle age but only a quarter of those without degrees were childless, the Friends Reunited website found. (Herald Sun 28/12/06)
This is an extraordinary development. In the 1950s only about 10% of women remained childless. Now we are told that 50% of university graduates haven't reproduced.
It's possible of course that the statistic is wrong. I tried to track down some other information on the internet. One article stated that 41% of Scottish graduate women aged 45 to 49 were childless compared to 30% of English graduates.
The only Australian statistic I could find was that 34% of postgraduate women have remained childless compared to 11% of those without a degree.
So although there's some discrepancy in the figures it does seem that very large numbers of graduate women are missing out on motherhood.
Why? According to the Prime Minister, the careerism expected of women by feminists is partly to blame for lower fertility rates. He said recently:
We've seen a tiny improvement in the fertility rate ... Fortunately, I think today's younger women are more in the post-feminist period, where they don't measure their independence and freedom by the number of years they remain full-time in the workforce without having children. They've moved on.
I think they have moved on from that sort of demonstration phase, in the sense of "I'll be letting the sisterhood down if I don't stay in the workforce until I'm a certain age."
I think what I would claim is that we support choice and we don't measure women's achievements and women's rights by the number of full-time female participants in the workforce. The truth of the matter is that when most Australian families have children, they really want a situation where, in the very early years, in the very early stages, somebody - usually the mother - is at home caring for the child full-time...
Some feminists have tried to distance themselves from the idea that feminism has ever discouraged women from having children. For instance, at the left-wing LP site there was the following sarcastic response to the PM's comments:
Unfortunately this will be my last post here. Feminism is over, and I have nothing else to write about. I had mistakenly thought that feminism was about autonomy, choice and equality in all areas of life, but now I know that it was only about having a career to keep the hivemind sisterhood happy.
Now I have permission to quit my job and have babies before it’s too late.
I think, though, that John Howard is closer to the truth than the LP sisterhood. Feminists have strongly emphasised careerism as an indicator of the progress of women. Last year, for instance, deputy opposition leader Julia Gillard completely ruled out the idea that a woman might choose to be a full-time mother:
If one suggested to a girl in school today that her future life would consist of marriage, raising children and tending the family home, she would no doubt look at you as if you had just arrived from Mars ...
Why would Julia Gillard exclude traditional motherhood as an option for women? The reasons have to do with the logic of feminism itself.
Feminism is liberalism applied to the lives of women. Therefore, feminism follows liberalism in making individual autonomy (in the sense of being unimpeded to do what you want or be what you want) the overriding goal.
The problem is that we don't marry and have children to increase our autonomy. If anything, we agree to sacrifice a measure of autonomy when we marry in order to fulfil other needs and drives.
So feminists were unlikely to promote marriage and the family as doing so would conflict with the principles on which feminism is based. It's no surprise, therefore, that the feminist culture of the 1980s and 90s was based on the ideal of the independent career girl, who was expected to focus on activities like work, shopping and travel which were thought to make women independent. Marriage and family were matters to be postponed until some vague, unspecified time in a woman's thirties.
There's a second reason why feminists have promoted female careerism. For liberals what matters, what makes us human, is our power to enact our own will. Therefore, liberals tend to understand social relationships in terms of power, dominance and oppression. If men have more economic or political power, it is assumed to be an illegitimate attempt to assert control over oppressed women.
Imagine you're a feminist woman who understands things this way. It will then be natural to view men as an oppressor group and you will naturally wish to overcome your oppression by competing with men in careers to secure economic and political power.
And this is where much of the problem lies. If graduate women have failed to have children it's due to a large degree to a failure to partner.
And isn't it less likely that graduate women will partner successfully if they've been brought up on feminist ideas? If you think autonomy is the most important thing in your life, so much so that you spend your entire 20s as an independent career girl, then the chances of partnering well are greatly reduced.
Similarly, if you think that men are an oppositional group you are duty bound to compete against for power in society, then there is not much room for romantic love to flourish.
And what about the impact of such ideas on men? Will men be romantically inspired by women who treat them as a hostile force? Will men be encouraged to work hard to establish careers if this is assumed to be an act of power over women, rather than a means to support a family?
Feminism hasn't been neutral when it comes to relationships between men and women. It has had the effect of disrupting family formation to the point where large numbers of graduate women have missed the opportunity to marry and have children.
What we must do now is to learn the lesson and understand why feminism, in its most basic assumptions, has led us to such a destructive outcome. Otherwise, a future generation of women will be left to the same fate.