"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

According to the feminist literature, women’s adult identities are constructed around the transition to motherhood and the representation of the feminine body. The demographic and sociological literature on motherhood repeatedly underlines the importance of gender norms in defining the transition to motherhood. As a consequence, in these literatures, childlessness represents a challenge both for gender norms and for the construction of women’s identities. In this thesis, I draw on life-course and feminist theories to question how childless women make sense of their being childless and how they negotiate their female identity throughout their life course. The overarching question I ask is: how do gender norms contribute to the experience of childlessness? By focusing on the role of gender norms in these processes, I look at the asymmetrical relationships based on sexual difference, which are constructed as 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. Gender norms frame expectations, beliefs, and behaviour and can be permissive, proscribing, and/or prescriptive. To examine them, I conducted 56 in-depth, exploratory, semi-structured interviews of heterosexual and childless women and their partners. I selected women without children who were settled in Switzerland and were both in reproductive and post-reproductive ages. Including multiple cohorts allowed me to capture the normative constructions across the trajectory of women’s lives. Adopting a thematic analytical approach, I show how the embodiment of gender norms in discourses about timing and about the female body create a gendering process making motherhood as constitutive of female identity. I offer three main contributions to the gender literature and the literature on childlessness. The first is that motherhood and childlessness are to be conceived as a continuum, rather than discrete opposite states. The use of the term ‘choice’ by childless women evokes a perpetual tension between constraints and an aspiration to motherhood. The second finding is that there is a reinforcement of the discourse on the timing to motherhood that includes both the immaterial element of the socially defined ‘right’ moment and the material element of timing related to the body and the naturalized need to become mother. The third result is that childless women’s representations of their bodies as potentially maternal supports a discourse on the corporeal experience of motherhood while being childless. This thesis contributes to the understanding the embodiment of gender norms and how womanhood intimately relates to motherhood, independently of whether the woman has children or not. In conclusion, I argue that research should avoid the construction of an artificial opposition of mothers versus non-mothers in studying childlessness, as all women relate to motherhood to some extent through the representations and the experience of their bodies. This is a crucial step in deconstructing the naturalization of motherhood as the core of female adult identity.

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