Science, sexism and the ticking of the 'biological clock'

Women are urged to put aside their careers and start having babies before it's too late. But since men's fertility declines with age too, why is the pressure to have children focused solely on women? Moira Weigel, the author of the much-praised new book Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, talks to Michael Enright about the strange history of the biological clock and how sexism colours our understanding of science.
Moira Weigel, author of the new book Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, tells Michael Enright that using the "biological clock" as a metaphor to describe female fertility is actually a relatively new phenomenon. (Joni Sternbach)

The idea of the biological clock is so pervasive, it feels as if it has been around forever.

But according to Yale graduate student Moira Weigel, we only began using the phrase "biological clock" to describe fertility in the late 1970s — around the time that Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen published a column called "The Clock Is Ticking for the Career Woman."

Sometimes, the Composite Woman is married and sometimes she is not. Sometimes, horribly, there is no man in the horizon. What there is always, though, is a feeling that the clock is ticking. A decision will have to be made. A decision that will stick forever. You hear it wherever you go. Women all over are singing their own version of September song.- An excerpt from Richard Cohen's 1978 column, "The Clock is Ticking for the Career Woman"

Weigel, the author of the new book Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, says the strange history of the biological clock is an example of how science and sexism can combine to place enormous pressure on women. 

Though there is real science behind the anxiety many women feel about waiting too long to have children, Weigel says the science is often murkier than we think — and our understanding of it is shaped by powerful cultural narratives about gender.

For example, the often-quoted statistic that one in three women between the ages of 35 and 39 will not be able to get pregnant after a year of trying comes from a study of French birth records from 1670-1830. And while female fertility declines with age, so does male fertility — something Weigel says we often forget because we still believe reproduction is a female responsibility.

Click the button above to hear Michael's conversation with Moira Weigel about the history of the biological clock. 


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