"I am not a Walking Uterus". How gender norms affect the experience of childless women in Switzerland.

Auteur Vanessa BRANDALESI
Directeur /trice Prof.e Laura Bernardi
Co-directeur(s) /trice(s)
Résumé de la thèse

Feminist studies have demonstrated that female adult identity is constructed around the transition to motherhood. In this thesis, I explore the experience of childless women to addresses the meaning of female childlessness and the embodiment of gender norms in Switzerland. The primary concern of the study is to examine the mechanisms through which gender norms operate throughout the lives of childless women. By focusing on gender norms, I look at asymmetrical relationships based on sexual difference which are constitutive of differences in symbolic representations, meanings of symbols, kinships, and subjective identity. I shed light on transitioning to motherhood as an expected transition based on a constructed sex-based difference, and which is framed by norms defining other gendered expectations (e.g., type of relationship, position in labour market). Gender norms frame expectations, beliefs and behaviour and can be permissive, proscribing, and/or prescriptive. The overarching question I ask is: how do gender norms affect the experience of childless women? To examine this issue, I conducted 56 in-depth, exploratory, semi-structured interviews of heterosexual and childless women and their partners. For the recruitment I used snowballing fieldwork techniques and I selected women without children who were settled in Switzerland and were aged between 34 to 65 years old. Including women beyond childbearing age allowed me to capture the normative constructions across the trajectory of women’s lives. The analysis, adopting a thematic approach, shows how the embodiment of gender norms passes through discourses and bodies, which maintain a gendering process making motherhood constitutive of female identity. Three main findings emerge. Of which the first is motherhood and childlessness as a continuum, rather than discrete states. Childless women using the term ‘choice’ in their justifications results in a perpetual tension between constraint and a desire for motherhood. The second finding is the embodiment of the timing of the transition to motherhood, including the immaterial element of the ‘right’ social moment, and the material element of the naturalized timing related to a corporeal feeling to become mother. The third result is that childless women have a potentially maternal body and hold a discursive register based on a corporeal experience of motherhood even when being childless. This thesis contributes to the understanding the embodiment of gender norms and how womanhood intimately connects to motherhood throughout the life course. In conclusion, I argue that motherhood impresses upon not only mothers, but all female bodies and research shall avoid the construction of an artificial opposition of mother versus non mother. This is a crucial step in deconstructing the naturalization of motherhood as the core of female adult identity.


Key words: female childlessness – gender norms - embodiment - feminist theory – Switzerland.

Statut à la fin
Délai administratif de soutenance de thèse Automne 2022