In A Room of One’s Own (1929), Virginia Woolf argued that, historically, successful women writers have not been mothers. Of Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, and George Eliot, she noted, “not one of them had a child.” This idea that having children stifles women’s creativity has had enormous cultural staying power for the past 100 years. Grappling with this narrative in 2018, for example, the narrator of Sheila Heti’s novel Motherhood wonders whether a baby would destroy her career as a novelist, asking whether “the universe lets women who make art but don’t make babies, off the hook?”
Given the cultural prominence of this idea that you can’t be a mother and a writer, it is surprising to learn that, across history, at least in Woolf’s Britain, roughly half of women writers have in fact had children. This is indeed lower than the percentage of women in the general population who had children—but the picture is not as dire as Woolf perceived. In a sample from the Orlando textbase of 1,115 British women who lived between medieval times and the present and who wrote at least one book, half (49 percent) were mothers. And the women writers who didn’t have children, like the canonical authors Woolf names, mostly lived in the 19th century. Even then, 41 percent of 19th-century women writers had children. Before the 17th century, women writers had children at similar rates to the general population. In the 20th century, with the rise of family planning and reproductive health care, women writers began to have more children again.
The Orlando Project is a textbase of entries on the lives and writing of more than 1,400 authors from medieval times to the present. Orlando began at the University of Alberta in 1995 and continues to grow in the present day. As specialists in 19th-century women’s writing and data and visualization, we have been collaborators on the project for the past four years. As parents of young children ourselves, we were repeatedly told that our writing and research would suffer after having kids. With unprecedented data to hand, we wondered if this had in fact been the case across history, or if the idea is a relic of the 19th century.
This interesting historical trajectory, with its pronounced dip in maternal authorship in the 19th century, initially confounded us. Why did women writing before the 19th century have more children? One explanation for the diminished fertility of women writers in the 19th century is that the shape of the career changed. The rise of the professional woman writer who was paid for her work in the commercial marketplace in the late 17th and early 18th centuries made it more important to restrict childbirth. Many earlier women writers are known for letters, life writing, and poetry written within a familial context, mostly for readers they knew, and often only published in book form centuries later. Margery Kempe (1373–1438), a mother of 14, became known as the author of the first autobiography written in English, a chronicle of her spiritual development. Early in their marriage, she and her husband were (as she described it) consumed by sexual desire, resulting in 14 children, a record she repented when she began dictating her life’s spiritual story around age 40. Lady Hester Pulter (1605–1678), a mother of 15 living and writing during the English Civil War, also circulated her royalist emblem poems and her prose romance within her family circle.
Production expectations for writers rose as authorship became a viable profession in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. For the first time in history, women (and men) could earn a living by writing journalism and fiction. Before writing became a career, women writers were almost as likely as other women to have children: 86 percent of women writers in the Orlando textbase born before 1600 did have children, a percentage roughly in line with the general population’s fertility in England and Wales. Afterward, the proportion of women writers who had children declined steeply, from 55 percent in the 1600s to 48 percent in the 1700s and 41 percent in the 1800s. In the 20th century, when limiting the size of one’s family became more possible, women writers became mothers in greater numbers, with 63 percent having at least one child.
The choice for most women who had sex with men and who were born before the 20th century would have been to have about seven children, or none. A lack of reliable birth control meant that in the 19th century, the average married woman in England or Wales had six or seven children, and a further 10 to 15 percent had 10 or more children. As better birth control became available, the number of births began to fall dramatically, from an average of just below six after 1875 to settling at just over two by 1940. In an era of unrestricted childbirth, as writer Rebecca Traister argues, spinsterhood could be a powerful position for women who wanted to safeguard their time for an increasingly demanding literary career. But despite the challenges, it was far from impossible, even for women in the 19th century, to have children and write. Nineteenth-century women writers who had children had around 3.33; roughly half the number of the average 19th-century mother, but plenty from a contemporary standpoint.
Does the number of children a woman writer has matter? Pointing to Joan Didion, Margaret Atwood, and Alice Walker, Lauren Sandler has argued that the secret to being both a successful writer and a mother is to limit yourself to one child. Single children have been common for women writers: 24 percent in our sample had one child. But across the centuries, having two or three children (39 percent), or even five or more children (34 percent), has been more common. In the 20th century, large families are less common for both writers and women in general: 87 percent of women writers who had children had one, two, or three.
There is a popular idea that you’ll lose a book, or maybe two, for every child you have. Men almost never seem to consider the issue of writing and its conflicts with having children, but in a rare exception, novelist and father of four Michael Chabon wrote that he was advised that “You lose a book for every child.” Journalist Hadley Freeman reports that a writer friend told her it’s two books for every child. This turns out not to be true, at least not for the writers in our database. In our sample, women writers without children published fewer books, on average (about 12), than those with one (14 books), two (13 books), or three children (16 books). The number of books does start to drop with four kids (11 books), or five or more children (10 books). (In our data set, we removed books that are exact duplicates, but some books that have different titles but similar content, for example A Room of One’s Own and A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, are counted separately, because we believe this type of republication does give a measure of a woman writer’s influence.) Unless three is the magic number of children to have to spur one’s productivity, a moderately sized family seems to have had little impact on the number of books women published.
While you may not lose a book for every child, with more children your book may come out a little later. One way to try to measure this effect is to calculate the average publication date for an author’s books and see what age she was. For those with no children, the average age at which they published a book was 46; for those with one or two children, it was 48; for three, it was 50. The age dropped down again for those with four to nine children, to 49, and to 48 for 10 or more children. Rather than every child causing a woman writer to lose a book, it might be more accurate to say that every child delayed a book by a year.
There are some amazing examples throughout history of women writers who had large families and large literary outputs. Charlotte Smith (1749–1806) and Sarah Trimmer (1741–1810) are two successful writers, a poet and a children’s author, respectively, who had 12 children apiece. The woman writer in the Orlando textbase with the largest number of children is Susanna Wesley (1669–1742), who wrote religious works addressed to her children. She had 18 or 19 children; her son was the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. Elizabeth Clinton, Countess of Lincoln (1574–1630), was a mother of 18 children who wrote The Countesse of Lincolnes Nurserie (1622), an advice manual on a woman’s religious and maternal duty to breastfeed her children. Emma Caroline Wood (1802–1879) produced 13 children and 14 novels. She took up writing to support herself at the age of 60, after her husband’s death.
Even in the 19th century, some women wrote big novels and had big families. Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835–1915) had six children between 1862 and 1870. The 1860s were also the decade when Braddon, a bestselling novelist of sensational works, wrote her most important works, including Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–1865) had seven children and wrote some of the most important fiction of the period, including Cranford and North and South. Margaret Oliphant (1828–1897), who had six children, three of whom survived childhood, and who also supported extended family members, wrote more multivolume fiction (232 titles) than any other Victorian novelist. And Woolf’s definition of motherhood is narrow: George Eliot (included as a mother in our sample) was a devoted stepmother to three stepsons, and Charlotte Brontë was pregnant when she died.
Social class and race may be more important factors in determining which writers have become mothers, historically. Class and race are more slippery concepts than the number of children one has, and the data is fuzzier on these points. But the 8 percent of women identified as lower-class or working-class writers in our database were actually more likely to be mothers than the rest of our sample set. At the beginning of the 19th century, around 60 percent of women were illiterate, which was far more of a bar to becoming a writer than whether or not you had children.
New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino recently noted that the idea that motherhood is a threat to an individual’s intellectual and creative possibility has usually been voiced by white women, and that books by authors of color, like Angela Garbes’ Essential Labor, may offer us an alternate model of caregiving and creativity. The women in the Orlando textbase are indeed predominantly white, which might suggest that race, alongside class, is more of a structural barrier to writing than maternity, at least in Britain. Historically, limiting births has been a heterosexual women’s issue, giving rise to the possibility that women who were not inclined to have sex with men were at an advantage as writers. The Orlando data is also slippery on the topic of sexuality. But from the information we have, writers tagged as “lesbian” represent only 8 percent of the sample set, and they, too, have an average of 0.63 children.
Virginia Woolf has had an outsize influence on the feminist literary canon, shaping our idea of what counts as good women’s writing—and what kind of life a woman writer should lead—well into the 21st century. Like her fellow writers of the early 20th century, she was keen to establish literary standards that favored the slim experimental modernist novel, defining it as the opposite of what Henry James called the “large loose baggy monster” of the Victorian period, with its emphasis on feminine themes like courtship and domestic life. Woolf excluded the “lady novelists” of her parents’ generation from the canon in the process.
In Woolf’s canon and James’ comments, we can see a fear of fecund, prolific women writers. Gaskell’s North and South may conform to different literary standards than Mrs. Dalloway, but it is still an excellent novel.
If the narrative that women writers can’t be mothers is, at best, only half true, why do we continue to give this 100-year-old critical chestnut so much weight? Clichés about both writers and mothers are to blame. Writers are supposed to be independent, working in long stretches of unbroken solitude and living a life of the mind. Mothers, meanwhile, are supposed to epitomize selfless care and interdependence. They are also not generally held to be competent at anything other than caregiving: witness the phrase, “so simple, even my mother could do it,” and the well-documented bias against mothers in the workforce.
It is too early to say if and how 21st-century women writers will combine writing and motherhood, especially since parenthood is on the decline for everyone, not just writers. But the idea that it’s nigh impossible to have a child and write a book belongs in the 19th century.