Words by Charlee (she/her), 21 NSW
Pope Francis, the oft-touted ‘progressive’ face of the Catholic Church, recently branded the decision to remain childfree as “selfish.”
Which is ironic, considering that the Pope himself is child-free.
The Pope’s accusation of selfishness reveals a glaring double standard: why are men rarely subjected to the same criticism as women?
For centuries, women’s bodies have been policed by patriarchal institutions like the Catholic Church. In the 15th century, Catholic clerics Heinrich Kramer and Johann Sprenger penned Malleus Maleficarum, a guidebook for the identification, interrogation, and execution of witches. Kramer and Sprenger were greatly influenced by the cult of the Virgin Mary; an ideal of motherhood that emphasises purity, passivity, and submission. This model of motherhood was upheld as the ideal for all women, which entailed the renunciation of all sexual acts outside of procreation. Conversely, those women who refused to prescribe to the social code and embraced pleasure and sexual autonomy were targeted as potential witches.
For the crime of being a Woman in Total Control of Herself (W.I.T.C.H), these women were burnt at the stake. God forbid women enjoy an orgasm or two!
While women aren’t being burnt at the stake in the 21st century, their reproductive rights are still under fire. In the United States, a wave of legislation has sought to curtail women’s access to safe and legal abortions. In a modern-day witch-hunt of sorts, private citizens have also been granted unprecedented power to sue anyone aiding and abetting a woman getting an abortion, creating a surveillance state reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials. Once again, we’ve found ourselves at the mercy of a patriarchal system that seeks to define identities and limit choices. Clearly, our society is more comfortable with women being nurturing, passive, and maternal, than it is with them being ambitious, independent, autonomous beings.
While Australia’s situation is not as extreme as in the US, we too grapple with an undercurrent of misogynistic judgement concerning child-free women.
Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female Prime Minister, was and remains to be childfree; an intimate choice that should have been as unremarkable as her male predecessors’ decision to wear blue ties. Yet, her choice became a spectacle, with her opponents making her childfree status a point of national debate.
The situation reached fever-pitch with the derogatory ‘Ditch the Witch’ campaign. Protestors brandishing placards that read ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘JuLIAR: Bob Brown’s Bitch’ swarmed the streets in a chilling display of misogyny and vitriol that exceeded the boundaries of acceptable political disagreement. Some political commentators even called for violence reminiscent of the Middle Ages – I am sure we can all remember Alan Jones calling for Gillard to be “put into a chaff bag and thrown into the sea,” like a 15th century witch thrown into a body of water to determine her guilt or innocence. Lucky for us, Gillard floated.
This denigration of childfree women is an echo of archaic attitudes; a manifestation of our enduring cultural discomfort with women who defy motherhood and by extension, the prescribed ‘natural order.’ Stay in your lane or be branded a ‘Selfish Witch.’
This societal bias extends to the casual dismissal that childfree women will ‘change their mind.’ The insinuation is clear: women cannot know what they want, or more precisely, they are misguided if their desires do not align with traditional narratives of motherhood. This dismissive attitude undermines the legitimacy of the childfree choice, perpetuating the myth that women’s identities and value are intrinsically tied to their reproductive capacity.
In a society that is striving towards a more gender-equal future, shouldn’t we be encouraging women to prioritise their own pleasure and ambitions, just as men have been allowed to do for centuries? Nobody is accusing the Pope of witchcraft for the crime of not having children.
Please, let me be clear: advocating for childfree women should not eclipse the monumental decision to become a mother. Rather, it broadens the narrative to include all choices women make about their bodies and lives, promoting a culture of respect and acceptance for every woman’s decision. The end goal is not to privilege one choice above the other, but to create a society where every woman’s decision regarding her body and life is seen as valid. Whether a woman says ‘yes’ to motherhood or ‘no’ to children, it is the fact that she has made a personal choice that should be celebrated, not judged or criticised.
In a world where women are still subjected to ‘witch hunts’ – from political smear campaigns to online trolling – we must challenge these narratives and promote a culture that respects and values a woman’s autonomy. Recognising a woman’s reproductive choice does not make you complicit in black magic: it’s a hallmark of a progressive society that values women for who they choose to be, not what society dictates they should be. So, let’s ditch the ‘Witch’ label, and burn sexist stereotypes at the stake.
Illustration by Aileen. You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenngstudio