Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness

Article excerpt

Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness. Elaine Tyler May. New York: Basic Books. 1995. 318 pp. Hardcover ISBN 0-465-00609-4. $24.00 cloth.

This book is about the intersections between the public and private stakes in reproduction in the United States. The objective is to study the history of childlessness in order to understand the dynamic aspect of these stakes. Elaine Tyler May tells us that "although procreation is a profoundly private experience, reproductive behavior takes place in a society that is deeply concerned about who becomes a parent and under what circumstances. This concern is not new, but the public's stake in who has children and who does not has changed over time" (p. 2).

The notion of childlessness for May refers to the absence of children (both voluntary and involuntary) for people that society has defined as parent material. She discusses the strong social pressures, including the drive for a technological fix in the case of the involuntarily childless, that are levied to enforce the reproductive norm. Perhaps less conventional, childlessness for her also includes the presence of children among people who society has defined as not being parent material--those who should be childless, but who are not. She discusses the eugenics movement, which was based on both class and race, and the emphasis on compulsory sterilization that accompanied it.

This book reflects a social-psychological perspective and is concerned with change over time. It is well written and contains some interesting points. There are a number of drawbacks, though, that limit its contribution. Lacking is a rich set of theoretical ideas to shape the discussion. The methodological approach, too, has its problems. May states that she wanted to include "the voices of the childless themselves" (p. …

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