Date of Award

Fall 1998

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Michael J Donnelly


The purpose of this study is to examine contemporary cultural meanings of female childlessness and come to understand these meanings in relation to historical meanings of childlessness. The contemporary shifts in the meaning of childlessness reflect America's struggle with women's changing social roles, particularly since the mid-1960s. As more women are stepping outside of the domestic sphere and forging new nondomestic pathways, the meaning of childlessness is undergoing changes and reflects our culture's ambiguity about women's new roles.

In order to examine the shifts in themes regarding childlessness, this study focuses on the thematic analysis of 67 films released by Hollywood between 1980 and 1996. Films were selected based on three main criteria: (1) the presence of a leading female childless character over the age of thirty; (2) box office sales; and (3) a contemporary setting.

The thematic analysis of these 67 films reveals a field of meanings of contemporary childlessness that suggests a cultural ambiguity about childless women's roles in American society. One dominant theme suggests that childless women are a threat to the institution of marriage and want to destroy the private nuclear family. Such women are incapable of maintaining a marital relationship and most often allow their professional ambitions to overshadow their personal relationships. The films also suggest that we are in the midst of a cultural shift away from the belief that childless woman are spinsters who dedicate their sad lives to helping other people. Instead, new images of childless women include financial independence, self-confidence, sexual freedom, youthful vitality, and strong commitment to career. Perhaps the most striking feature of these films is the strong dichotomization of women into the two major categories of mothers (or future mothers) and nonmothers. Mothers and nonmothers differ in terms of personality characteristics and type of social roles they perform, with mothers assuming the responsibilities of caring for the future generation, while nonmothers, with the exception of nuns, are removed from personal contact with children.