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Politics of the "Biological Clock"

January 18, 2018
Katie Visco

"All women want babies, and career women are unhappy with their 'liberation' if it puts their traditional role of motherhood at risk."

That was the message of "The Clock is Ticking for the Career Woman," a March 16, 1978, Washington Post article that popularized the concept of the biological clock. The author was Richard Cohen, who is still a columnist with that paper (despite allegations of bullying and possible sexual harassment of a young female aide in the late 1990s and controversial racial remarks in more recent pieces). In the article, Cohen opened with a description of "Composite Woman," whose age is "something between 27 and 35" and as if reducing the individual experiences of half of the world's population into one person wasn't bad enough, he added: "She's the pretty one. Nice figure." Her job is "wonderful," and there's a man in her life. 

But everything is not wonderful. She looks down and after Cohen assures her that she can talk to him privately, Composite Woman says, "I want to have a baby." Later, Cohen claims to have gone "around, a busy-bee of a reporter, from woman to woman" and found the same stomach-churning anxiety they all felt about the possibility they might not have children one day. In my opinion, the best thing to do with such a piece of writing is to forget it. We could probably do that, if it wasn't for the fact that it was in this article that the term "biological clock" was born. 

It's important to consider Cohen's piece in context. As Susan Faludi argued in her book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, two things have frequently triggered backlashes against women's rights: economic independence and increased control over our fertility. The 1970s seemed to be bringing both. While U.S. women have always worked, the 1970s brought a massive surge of women entering professional and management jobs. Between 1972 and 1985, the number of management roles occupied by women almost doubled, and the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade happened in 1973. A conservative section of society didn't like these changes, and a subtle but strong backlash took root. Their message hid under the guise of acting as concern for unhappy women; those unable to cope with stress, and female movie characters who found "fulfillment" only by giving up their careers. 

But what did it really come down to? The message that women should "get back into the kitchen." And Cohen's article, whether he intended it as an act of misogyny or was simply carried along by the prevailing narrative, nicely fit that theme. Nearly 40 years later, we still can't get away from the notion of this biological clock. It persists even though there's actually relatively little good research about this supposed "countdown."

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