Archive: Apr 2015

Please enjoy this re-post of we’re {not} having a baby!‘s interview with sociologist Gillian Ayers on her research on childfree women.

“I could be a father, but I could never be a mother”: Research on Childfree Women in Canada

We here at w{n}hab! love us some research. Especially when it’s sociological (have we mentioned Amy is a sociologist?). So when we came upon an article last summer describing findings from Gillian Ayers’ research on childfree women, we knew we wanted to know more.

Sociologist Gillian Ayers

Gillian Ayers is a Sessional Lecturer at the University of Lethbridge. Her Master’s thesis is entitled “I could be a father, but I could never be a mother”: Values and Meanings of Women’s Voluntary Childlessness in Southern Alberta. Here we chat with Gillian about why she chose to study women in particular and her most surprising research findings.


w{n}hab! – How did you get interested in the topic of childfree women?

G.A. – I became interested in the topic of voluntary childlessness during my undergraduate studies in sociology. The courses I took on sociology of the body, gender, deviance, and feminist theory all challenged my world-view and made sense to me on a personal level as I started to figure out what direction my life would take. I eventually started to question the imperative to mother in my own life, and when I applied to graduate school I decided to explore the topic further through a formal research project. During my research I spoke with 21 women in Southern Alberta who identified as childless by choice.

w{n}hab! – Why study women in particular?

G.A. – Social expectations for women and men are very different. I knew fairly early on in my research project that I would only be speaking with women, as women face particular scrutiny when it comes to domestic life and childbearing decision-making. However, it’s important to note that my study takes for granted the belief that men and fathers are viewed as less involved in childbearing decision-making and childrearing more generally, and the social pressures for them are less. Consequently, women are often the ones who are held responsible for the decision to remain childless, regardless of whether or not the decision was made with a partner. As a result, I was most interested in speaking with women about their experiences of voluntary childlessness.

w{n}hab! – Which of your findings most surprised you? Why?

G.A. – I was most shocked by the “ick” factor explained by many of the women I spoke with regarding pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. This was not an idea I had really thought much about before this research and it truly surprised me because I think many people consider pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding to be beautiful, wonderful, and joyous experiences. In contrast, several women I spoke with were repulsed by these prospects and spoke about wanting to avoid the pain of childbirth, the weight gain, and the feelings of being “hijacked” by a foreign entity during pregnancy. In sum, it was not just the notion of childrearing that women rejected, but also the physical aspects of childbearing.

w{n}hab! – You’ve said that the concept of intensive motherhood was relevant to your research. How so?

G.A. – Sharon Hays (1996) developed the concept of intensive motherhood, which includes methods that should be “child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive, and financially expensive.” I found that the voluntarily childless women I spoke with often took up the tenets of intensive motherhood and held motherhood in high esteem. For many of the women, if they couldn’t mother the “right” way, they weren’t going to do it at all. This belief became apparent to me when, for example, 20 of the 21 women I spoke with cited financial reasons for remaining voluntarily childless. Many women viewed intensive motherhood ideologies as an impossible standard, and instead chose to reject motherhood altogether.

w{n}hab! – What’s next for you in this research? What questions remain?

G.A. – Future research could more fully examine the experiences of voluntarily childless First Nations, Métis, or Inuit women, as well as women who are visible minorities. Both these groups have higher than average birth rates in Canada, and they may have different expectations regarding childbearing. Of course, future research could also include speaking to voluntarily childless men about their experiences.

The floor plan of the White House recently made headlines because of a subtle change that’s caused a bit of a stir: it now features a gender-neutral restroom. Just one. But one was enough to make headlines. Many people don’t think twice about which restroom to use in public. Some people’s choice, however, is more of a dilemma than you might assume. Many transgender individuals struggle with the restroom issue in public settings. And this is an issue that forces cis-gender folks to confront deeply held beliefs about a gender-segregated setting—beliefs some may not fully realize they hold and many may be ill-equipped to discuss.

Making use of a public restroom is not often understood as a political act. Yet, a group of transgender folks in the U.S. and Canada are participating in a bit of digital activism by doing just that. It’s a quiet social movement, but it’s already gained some media attention. Pictures posted alongside the hashtags #Occupotty, #WeJustNeedToPee, and less often #LetMyPeoplePee on all manner of social media are starting a much-needed conversation about gender in and around public restrooms.

Brae Carnes
Brae Carnes, a transwoman in Victoria, depicted here using a men’s public restroom to raise awareness about what discriminatory legislation associated with “bathroom bills” would actually look like in practice.

Brae Carnes is a transgender woman living in Victoria, Canada whose photo-activism went viral when she posted an image of herself applying lipstick in a public restroom with a line of urinals against the wall behind her (see left). Brae told reporters at the Times Colonist, “I’m giving them what they want… I’m actively showing them what it would look like if that became law and how completely ridiculous it is” (here). And Brae is not alone. Michael Hughes, a transgender man living in Minnesota, also caused some digital waves when he posted a series of pictures of himself in women’s restrooms with captions like: “Do I look like I belong in women’s facilities?” (see below). Brae and Michael are part of a vocal group of trans* rights activists opposing legislation that would force transgender people to use the public restroom facilities associated with their birth gender (the sex they were assigned at birth). So-called “bathroom bills” are being introduced in the U.S. and abroad, and #Occupotty is an important challenge to the proposed legislation.

B_6vNpGUQAAm_bgThose introducing bathroom bills most often justify them as being about “protection,” “public safety,” and as attempts to reduce violence and assault. The bills rely on the transphobic myth that transgender individuals are sexually perverse and that they are likely to be sexual predators.  Thus, defenders of these bills often claim that they are about protecting cis-gender people. This avoids the troubling truth that transgender individuals are far more likely to have violence committed against them than they are to commit this kind of violence against others. Indeed, Media Matters found no evidence to substantiate the claim that restroom sexual assaults were higher in trans-inclusive jurisdictions.  One survey of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals in Washington D.C. found that 70% of respondents reported having been either harassed in, assaulted in, or denied access to public restrooms (see here).   It’s an important issue and Brae Carnes and Michael Hughes are helping to draw more attention to the lives that hang in the balance.

Bathroom bills portray trans* persons as sneaky and deviant and as attempting to trick the rest of us into using a restroom with them. But, as reported, there have been zero reported attacks on cis-gender people by transgender people in public bathrooms. All of the documented attacks victimized trans* persons. So, why is the conversation about transgender people committing violence rather than about protecting transgender folks from cis-gender violence?

This is an instance of what Laurel Westbrook and Kristen Schilt call a “gender panic”—situations in which people collectively react to challenges to biology-based ideologies about what gender is and where it comes from by attempting to reassert those ideologies. Bathroom bills produce just this type of ideological collision where biology-based ideologies and identity-based ideologies are pitted against each other in public discourse. Inside this ideological discord, we gain new information about the gender binary, gender inequality, and how our beliefs about gender difference take a lot more work to uphold than we may assume.

Bathrooms are intensely gendered spaces. The belief that men and women, boys and girls, ought to relieve themselves in separate rooms is a powerful illustration of our collective investment in gender differences. But, sex-segregated bathrooms are a matter of social preference and organization rather than being recommended by our biology. And when we attempt to resolve this gender panic by resorting to biology (such as introducing legislation mandating the criteria of “birth gender” for public restroom use), we continue an awful tradition of putting transgender people at risk of violence under the guise of protecting “us” from “them.”  But, social scientific research shows that we are in far greater need of policies that protect “them” from “us.”

Bathroom segregation is a political issue and one that deserves academic and public feminist support. The proposed legislation relies on myths associated with cis-gender and transgender people alike. Whether motivated by hate or misunderstanding, these laws fail to acknowledge well-documented facts about violence against transgender people, and in doing so, play a role in perpetuating continued violence and discrimination against transgender people. #Occupotty is a political statement and a request for recognition and rights. But these brave digital activists are doing more than that, too. They are exposing a set of myths that also work to justify gender and sexual inequality. Whether openly acknowledged or not, it is for this reason that #Occupotty meets resistance and it is for this reason that it deserves more support.



This article was republished on Wonder Anew, an ongoing project born from an idea that personal positive change (finding the best in ourselves) is a way to gain insight and wisdom to live a better life, that sharing our personal changes lifts others’ spirits, and that listening to others’ changes can inspire us to be contributors to the world.

Professionals wear many hats. I’m a scholar, author, researcher, editor, educator, analyst, speaker, evaluator, advisor, collaborator, investigator, advocate, and consultant. I’m also a yoga instructor. In addition to my advanced degree in social science, I’ve logged more than 300 hours of formal yoga training and taught more than 400 hours of public classes.

Parivrtta Hasta Padangusthasana - Big Bend National Park
Parivrtta Hasta Padangusthasana – Big Bend National Park

Yoga, derived from the Sanskrit root “yuj” means “yoke” or “union.” The practice uses a variety of movements, breathing exercises, meditation, and relaxation techniques to help the practitioner achieve union (balance) between the mind, body, and spirit. Although yoga can be traced back thousands of years, modern yoga has morphed into a variety of new styles that incorporate classical and contemporary philosophies and methods. It may be practiced as a form of religion, lifestyle, leisure, or fitness. Americans spend $6 billion a year on yoga classes, equipment, clothing, workshops, videos, books, and more. Yoga has become so popular as a health modality, with about 17 million practitioners in the United States alone, that doctors are starting to recommend yoga to their patients to improve health and enhance allopathic medicine.

Many modern practitioners (70 percent of whom are women) do yoga specifically to improve their health. I started practicing more than 15 years ago for that same reason. Since then, yoga has become more than a pastime for me. It is the singular item I resist from crossing off my ever-expanding “to-do” list. It is the activity I seek out within the nooks and crannies of passing time. Yoga gives me a chance to breathe, to balance in perilous positions, to stand on my head and quite literally experience the world from a different perspective. Yoga calms me down; it helps keep me sane. Yoga informs my being, my living, and my work.

I’ve practiced yoga for thousands of hours. I’ve taught outdoors in parks and on rooftops, and indoors in living rooms, lounges, classrooms, dance halls, yoga studios, and occasionally in the session rooms at academic conferences. Yoga has been this thing in the periphery of my professional life. But every time I teach a class I witness a palpable shift in the room, a sense of calm that sweeps in and through, from beginning to end.

I used to think my yoga practice was more tangential to my work, but upon reflection I realize that is not the case. I now see that yoga is also a body project that has the potential to engage feminism and inspire feminist consciousness. It is neither a necessary condition nor a guaranteed outcome. But the body has long been the beating heart of copious feminist work.

Feminist Theory and the Body

Early western feminists didn’t always consider the body to be central to women’s empowerment. Women have been equated with the body (not the mind) throughout history, and this helped to justify the treatment of women as property, objects, and commodities. Some feminists therefore believed that equality between men and women rested upon the notion that rationality (reasoning) was the universal human capacity that could render neutral the seemingly fundamental biological differences that promoted gender inequality. Simone De Beauvoir’ radical exploration of such inequality in The Second Sex brought the relation between the body and the self to the center of feminist theorizing. Unlike the history of (dualist) western intellectual tradition in which the body was absent or dismissed as irrelevant, feminism’s second wave argued that the body matters; materially, discursively, performatively, and phenomenologically.

Corporeality is entangled in culture and biology, meaning and substance, identity and lived experience, mind and matter. Yoga can be a window into these varied dimensions of feminist conceptualization.

Culture and Biology: Yoga provides an opportunity to participate in an ancient, though modified, cultural tradition while experiencing the rhythm of life through the synchronization of breath and movement.

Meaning and Substance: As the body breathes and energy flows, mindful attention to the positioning of the body in physical space (in the shape of a cobra, an eagle, a triangle, a wheel, a warrior, a mountain, a corpse) allows awareness of oneself, as corporeal and beyond the body, to surface.

An actor and an observer at the same time, a yoga practitioner may become aware that sensory activities give rise to perceptions and judgments that may be based in reason (e.g., pulling weeds all weekend contracted my shoulders, limiting my range of motion) or may transcend both reason and experience (e.g., I’m not strong). Through the practice, we can learn that perception is not purely sensation; nor is it purely interpretation. Consciousness is a process that includes sensing as well as reasoning.

Identity and Lived Experience: Practicing yoga with others perhaps inches away and planted, firmly or precariously, on their own plot of imagined earth (often delineated by a 2’ x 6’ sticky mat) places the individual in relation, in an orchestrated flow of energy and motion. Unlike many social interactions we simultaneously experience ourselves with, and apart from, others. On a level we know, too, that we are an element of their perceptions just as they are a component of ours.

Mind and Matter: With regular practice, yogis may experience equanimity: a perfect, unshakable balance of mind. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston define it as “an even-minded mental state or dispositional tendency toward all experiences or objects, regardless of their origin or their affective valence (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral).” It is the essence of well-being, the foundation for clarity, neutrality, and insight.

Why does the mind-body-spirit of yoga matter for feminism?

Much of feminist organizing focuses on informational empowerment and structural change to improve human conditions. This is vital. Yet the body still matters. It is a source of meaning, identity, empowerment, and connection. It is part of life. It is life. Yet, the body is judged, controlled, politicized, medicalized, contaminated, and abused. The body is objectified, commodified, marked in accord with perceived social value, and exploited for its labor. The body remains a site of inequality and therefore must remain a feminist project.

For me, yoga is a way to remember that I am not a brain on a stick. Being in my body, and connected through yoga and meditation reveals an inner potency and respect of self. I am strong yet vulnerable. I am in my body, of my body, and beyond my body. And when I find equanimity in my yoga practice, the unity of mind-body-spirit provides healthy fodder for my feminist work and the life I want to live.

Additional Resources:

Around 10 years ago, when I was going through menopause, I switched to a new OB/GYN who nearly convinced me to go on Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). I had told her that my mother struggled with hot flashes and depression during her “change of life”, as they say, and I was worried about what it would be like for me. As a preventive measure, she prescribed HRT. Jump two frames forward and there I was, standing in line at the local pharmacy waiting to pick up my meds, but feeling very ambivalent. I’ve always been drug-adverse, and I thought, ‘why am I considering taking these meds unless it’s absolutely necessary?’ I was trying to stave off a problem that didn’t actually exist!

Serendipitously, I started to chat with the woman in line next to me, a friend of a friend, who suggested that if I had questions about HRT, I should take a look at Dr. Christine Northrup’s book, “The Wisdom of Menopause”. Even though I walked out of that store with a filled prescription, I never cracked the bottle. Northrup says, “I’ll take my chances with the hormones that mother nature has taken at least 3 million years to come up with”, arguing that women with healthy ovaries and adrenals may not need (HRT). Even for the one-third of women who have had their ovaries removed and may benefit “from a little estrogen or a little progesterone or possibly a little testosterone”, Northrup says that “in no case should these be the conventional hormones that are synthetic. This is important for people to know: you cannot patent a naturally occurring hormone”. (Northrup’s advice about nutritional supplements below.*)

It turns out that there are some serious reasons to avoid HRT. Medical sociologist, Gayle Sulik, writes:  “Clearly, there is a relationship between the use of synthetic hormone therapies and breast cancer even if the mechanisms are not fully understood. In 2002, when the findings from the Women’s Health Initiative estrogen-plus-progestin study came out, about 38 percent of postmenopausal women in the U.S. were using some type of hormone therapy drug. When the WHI findings hit the news, sales plummeted and breast cancer incidence rates also dropped”.

An article published in the New England Journal of Medicine also linked a sharp decline (6.7 percent) in breast cancer incidence in 2003 with the release of the first Women’s Health Initiative report “and the ensuing drop in the use of hormone-replacement therapy among postmenopausal women in the United States.'”

I later read somewhere that around 40% of women who get their HRT prescriptions filled never take the stuff, and that info validated my choice. The link between HRT and breast and other cancers was too real to me. My mother had had breast cancer, and it seemed like taking these drugs was like playing with fire. Instead I devoured literature on alternative ways to deal with menopause symptoms, drank my soy milk and copped a “bring it on” attitude.

As if there weren’t enough reasons to question the use of Hormone Replacement Therapy, I just discovered another. Call me naïve or sheltered, but it never occurred to me that Premarin – an HRT taken by a number of my friends – was named for what it actually is: Pregnant Mare’s Urine. In other words, the drug of choice for so many menopausal women comes from horses that are “farmed” for this exact purpose. Northrup says, “People will tell you that Premarin is natural–yeah, it’s natural if you are a horse!”

According to an April 5th Boston Globe article by Nestor Ramos,, these horses are kept “inside long barns in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan”, lined up in rows of small stalls, “tubes snaking up from under them into vessels nearby”. Geez! Ramos, comments, “It sounds like science fiction — some equine version of “The Matrix,” in which a superior species saps humans for their nutrients — but it’s true: The urine is precious”.

The article is a human interest piece focusing on two women – one, age 70; the other, in her late 20s – who share a love of horses. It turns out that while selling Premarin is a profitable industry, “keeping hundreds of horses pregnant every year” in order to gather their urine has a downside. The mares have babies, and selling the foals for meat is also apparently a profitable business. The elder woman has spent years going back and forth to Manitoba to rescue some of these foals from the “slaughterhouse floor”, but her energy to make this trip has waned, so having a protégé who shares her passion has made it possible for her to carry out this mission, and in a way, build in the potential for someone to carry on when she no longer can make the journey.

I love the story of these two women: one in which the passion and leadership of the “elder” inspires the younger, and the vibrancy of the younger who makes this difficult journey possible. But what if there wasn’t such a lucrative industry around harvesting pregnant mare urine in the first place to supposedly rescue aging women from a natural change in their reproductive cycles? Northrup comments, “The hormones that naturally occur in the human female body have been altered so that the drug companies can justify the R&D programs to patent a hormone and therefore make their money. It’s frightening!”

Check out this Huffington Post piece by investigative reporter Martha Rosenberg, called “When the publication plan is ready, the research will appear”, in which she describes how the marketing arm of a drug company published articles denying the link between HRT and cancer. “Though the marketing firm’s “science” is egregiously flawed — HT has strong links to breast cancer, breast cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s — the papers have not been retracted.”

The cultural narrative for menopause, very much aided and abetted by the pharmaceutical industry – is that it’s a medical crisis to be tackled. Women’s natural reproductive functions have long been viewed as indicative of “otherness”, weakness and incapacity, from menstruation to menopause. While many women surely benefit from a medical approach to easing symptoms of menopause, we must question who and what the medicalization of menopause serves, and recognize that menopause isn’t a wasting away, a time in which we go bonkers and lose our minds and bodies. It is just another passage in a series of chapters in women’s lives.

* Northrup does recommend the use of nutritional supports such as omega 3 fats and B vitamins, “to help clear estrogen dominance from your system”.  Because when you stop ovulating and you don’t have progesterone to balance the estrogen, “that can create a state of anxiety, jitters, and headaches”. Her advice? Eating soy or ground up flax seed “helps a great deal to give you plant hormone support while your body is making the transition”.

For more reading, see:

Peter Conrad: Medicalization and Social Control:

Meyer, Medicalization of Menopause: Critique and Consequences:

Marlene Cimons: Medicalization of Menopause: Framing Media Messages in the 20th Century: