The perils of pronatalism

Earlier this year the South African president, Jacob Zuma, caused a stir when he was quoted as saying,

“I was happy because I wouldn’t want to stay with daughters who are not getting married. Because that in itself is a problem in society. People today think being single is nice. It’s actually not right. That’s a distortion. You’ve got to have kids. Kids are important to a woman because they give extra training to a woman, to be a mother.” (1)

His statement, which was made in an interview during women’s month no less, was in response to his daughter’s upcoming marriage and is a prime example of pronatalism. Zuma’s statement shows the particular expectation that women should be mothers. Many would dismiss such blatantly pro-natal and sexist statements as the products of patriarchal Zulu culture, or as a uniquely African perspective. After all, some research has indicated that African and other ‘developing’ contexts are characterised by profoundly pronatalist views. What then can we make of the responses to Australian Prime Minister Gillard who has been characterized as a spinster and called “deliberately barren” by a member of the opposition party? (He later begrudgingly apologised.) (2) 

Gillard is unmarried and has no children. These personal circumstances have been considered cause for public concern, with questions raised regarding her capacity to run the country. This video clip, for example, shows Gillard’s response to such a question in a public forum.  Such ‘concerns’ can only rest on pronatalist assumptions about the value of (married) parenthood, and motherhood in particular.  They are not far removed from Zuma’s claim that being a mother provides a married woman with “extra training”.

If we look closely at the rhetoric surrounding criticisms of Gillard, the  words ‘spinster’ and ‘barren’, and even ‘childless’, are telling.  ‘Spinster’ evokes negative, somewhat old-fashioned, cultural connotations of being an ‘old maid’ accompanied only by her cats, as opposed to the fun-filled connotations of ‘bachelors’ who have parties and ‘pads’. Nobody in her right mind would actively associate with spinsterhood; hence the more recent coining of the word ‘bachelorette’. (Jill Reynolds has done some interesting research on the topic of single women.) (3) Like the Spinster, the barren woman is also lacking. She is unproductive, empty, and most likely lonely. It is rather surprising that such old-fashioned terms are deployed, but perhaps this is an indication that the ideas they represent are not so out-moded. Or, perhaps, such thinking resurges in the face of threats to the gender order, as in the case of a female PM. Nevertheless, such descriptions of an unmarried and childfree person are rooted in the pronatalist assumption of the negative consequences of not having children. (The corollary to which is the glorification of parenthood.) 

Perhaps it can be argued that these are relevant questions when it comes to public figures, but no one has considered that Gillard might have more time to devote to the running of her country and will cost the state less. Is this not relevant, given that the expenditure of the head of state on her/his family is frequently the subject of public discussion? Examples most recently include questions regarding the Obamas in the USA and the recent controversy closer to home in which Zuma was accused of spending in the region of R240 million on the home of the (very large) first family in his hometown of Nkandla. (5)

Negative stereotypes of ‘childlessness’ promote a fear-induced drive for parenthood at all costs. They pressure people into having (many) children, even those who would probably not be very good parents and without proper regard for our resources. (4) This is not to deny that parenthood can be fulfilling and has its rewards. A more balanced view, however, would be acknowledging that having kids has drawbacks and that being childfree also has its advantages. Should we not allow people—in a world where the population numbers over 7 billion—to decide for themselves which costs they are able to handle and which benefits they are willing to forfeit? 

Pronatalism has been called one of society’s “invisible devices” (6), but while it may have once served a purpose, it can be argued that it is now outlasted its usefulness, or has never actually been very useful at all. This is not to say that people shouldn’t become parents at all, but rather that we should be more critical and aware of our pronatalist assumptions, their pervasiveness, and their potentially damaging effects. (4)

By Tracy Morison


  1. Padayachee, Kamini & Mkamba, Lungelo (2012) Zuma’s single  women views spark anger. IOL.
  2. Anonymous (2012) Opposition apologises to childless Gillard.
  3. Reynolds, J (2008) The single woman: A discursive investigation. Taylor & Francis.
  4. Carroll, L (2012) The Baby Matrix: Why Freeing Our Minds From Outmoded Thinking About Parenthood & Reproduction Will Create a Better World. Live True Books.
  5. Evans, Sally; McKune, Craig; & Brümmer, Stefaans (2012) Nkandla upgrade: Last-minute bid to hide costs.
  6. Peck, E & Senderowitz (1974) Pronatalism: The myth of mom and apple pie. Thomas Y. Cromwell Company.
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One Response to The perils of pronatalism

  1. Vasu Reddy says:

    Dear Tracy. Interesting engagement and viewpoints on a topical issue that speaks to the research study you and your team are engaged with. I am in agreement here. I see from your response, a potential article topic that could be further developed from your blog piece. It could be titled, Pronatalism and Parenthood: Motherhood, children and Choice (your data could be the media coverage on this issue; and pehaps may be compare with some of the work of your team from other countries). I’d like to discuss with you the possibility of presenting some ideas about this at the Staff Seminar.

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