In our current era, the choice of a child-free lifestyle is gaining traction as an ethical and ecological decision. However, delving into the past reveals a complex history that contributed to the stigmatization of women opting not to have children. The 19th century, characterized by societal pressure for increased birthrates, witnessed a distinctive portrayal of childless women as monstrous horticultural hybrids in both literature and paintings.
During this time, societal norms dictated that motherhood was not only natural but also a woman’s civic duty for the nation. Childless women were often viewed as deviating from expected roles, being deemed unnatural and perilous. Drawing inspiration from the burgeoning field of horticulture, the metaphor of “hybrid flowers” gained prominence to describe sexually active women who either couldn’t or chose not to bear children.
The association of women with flowers had ancient roots, evident in pagan agricultural figures like Demeter, the Greek goddess of harvest, marriage, and fertility. As the discussion around the sexual nature of plants became more open, flowers began symbolizing a young woman’s emerging sexuality or her anticipation of “bearing fruit.” This shift in the floral metaphor occurred after the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus introduced anthropomorphic language to discuss plant sexuality in the late 18th century.
In the latter part of the 19th century, horticultural hybrids, characterized by large, often vividly colored flowers reminiscent of enlarged genitals, gained popularity. These hybrids, frequently sterile, served as a metaphor for “unproductive” sexuality. The exaggerated size and vibrant colors of these man-made hybrids accentuated the analogy, emphasizing the artificiality of their infertility.
The political and social context of the time played a pivotal role in shaping perceptions of childless women. The Second Empire in France (1852-1870) and the beginning of the Third Republic (1870-1840) were marked by an obsession with the nation’s low birth rate. Childless women were not only considered unnatural but were also seen as bad citizens contributing to France’s perceived decline. Some politicians even linked this demographic trend to the country’s loss in the war against Prussia (1870-1871).
Comparisons between childless women and hybrid, infertile flowers reinforced the notion that these women were un-French, undesirable, and, in some ways, monstrous. The societal pressure to adhere to traditional gender roles and the expectation of women to embrace motherhood persisted through these stigmatizing comparisons.
Understanding this historical association between women and nature, particularly the use of flowers as metaphors, is crucial for comprehending the enduring demonization of childless women in contemporary society. Even in modern times, echoes of this historical prejudice persist in art, culture, and language, with child-free women still often labeled as “unnatural” or biologically deviant. The historical roots of these stereotypes remind us of the importance of challenging ingrained societal beliefs and fostering a more inclusive perspective towards diverse choices in family planning.