Motion Detector No. 24: Woman ≠ Mother?!

Museum Europäischer Kulturen

In the Motion Detector series, the Museum Europäischer Kulturen (MEK, Museum of European Cultures) presents objects from the collection and loans related to topics concerning people in Europe. To mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, the 24th Motion Detector focuses on how the roles of women and motherhood have changed in society. The Motion Detector presentation is on display in the MEK lobby.

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn”

This sentence, often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, is known as the “saddest, shortest story ever written”. Like the baby shoes referred to, the children’s jacket seen here has never been worn. A sad story? We can’t say for sure. Nevertheless, childlessness is seen by many people as an unfortunate, tragic circumstance.

The Struggle for a Child-Free Life

Reproductive rights, including the right to choose a child-free life, were a key issue for the Women’s Movement in the 1970s. Contraceptives became increasingly accessible. However, the availability of abortion is still heavily regulated throughout the world. Some women were and are systematically denied the choice of motherhood. The forced sterilisation of women with disabilities during the National Socialist dictatorship is a particularly sinister example of this – but the practice is still legal in large parts of Europe. Other women fight for the right to choose a child-free life. At the same time, conservative and fundamentalist groups and political parties are once again emphasising that motherhood is a woman’s duty.

Living Child-Free

Child-free women find themselves regularly confronted with social expectations. In recent years, some of them have started to use the term child-free – to emphasise that it is a conscious choice and not a shortcoming. Child-free women are sometimes accused of hating children and of being selfish or career-focused.

To mark Women’s Day on 8 March, we would like to use this Motion Detector to examine how the understanding of women’s role in society has changed in regard to motherhood. Is the decision to live a child-free life now truly socially accepted?