A Hillbilly’s Take on Childlessness

Ritchie Calvin
6 min readJan 15, 2024
Photo by Guillaume de Germain on Unsplash

For most people who know of J. D. Vance, they know him through his book, Hillbilly Elegy (2016). In this best-selling memoir, Vance writes of the region in Kentucky where his family grew up, and of Middletown, Ohio, where he grew up. He writes of personal grievances. For example, he resented the fact that individuals on welfare could afford a cell phone he could not. He also offers his take on the reasons that Ohio and Kentucky shifted from blue to red. In the end, Vance argues that family stability is a key component of upward mobility.

In part, Vance’s ideas helped explain the rise of Donald Trump to the head of the Republican Party. Vance decided to run for Senate in 2021, with Trump’s endorsement, and he has been Ohio’s junior senator since 2023.

As Vance ran for office in July 2021, at a Future of American Political Economy conference, he weighed in on the “culture wars.” He argued, for example, that the Left did not really want to end racism or address structural inequalities. Instead, according to Vance, the Left wants to make US citizens “ashamed” of their past, which would make them easier to control. (See, for example, Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy, edited by Harkins and McCarroll, which responds to many of Vance’s claims.)

Vance also argued in that speech that a part of the Left’s agenda is to destroy the nuclear family. He, like so many before him, argues that the opposite-sex, nuclear family is the bedrock of all contemporary society. And he sees the Left’s openness to re-imagining and re-defining “family” as another mechanism of control.

In his rant about the family, Vance said this:

“We are run in this country, via the Democrats, via our corporate oligarchs by a bunch of childless cat ladies who are miserable at their own lives and the choices that they’ve made and so they want to make the rest of the country miserable too. It’s just a basic fact. You look at Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, AOC. The entire future of the Democrats are controlled by people without children.

“How does it make any sense we turned our country over to people who don’t really have a direct stake in it? I just wanted to ask that question and propose that maybe if we want a healthy ruling class in this country, we should invest more, we should vote more, we should support more people who actually have kids. Because those are the people who ultimately have a more direct stake in the future of this country.”

One hardly knows where to begin with this nonsense.

Well, let’s begin at the beginning. Vance argues that people who have biological children are the best suited to run the country. He suggests that they have a bigger stake in the future of the country because their own children will inherit it.

A) I suppose that Vance would acknowledge that George Washington had a pretty big stake in the future of the USA. You know, he fought wars; he was the first president. He was also childless. And, yet, he was deeply committed to shaping the future of this country.

Vance’s argument is rooted in the concept of “transcendence.” It’s the idea that we do not want to just disappear when we’re dead — we want some part of us to live on. And, for many people, the way that we achieve transcendence is through children. Our names carry on. Our traditions carry on. Our expressions carry on.

However, I know that Vance studied Philosophy (The Ohio State University, 2009). I suspect he’s read Plato. I suspect he’s read The Symposium. Well, as Diotima says in that work, “Who, when he thinks of Homer and Hesiod and other great poets, would not rather have their children than ordinary human ones?” In this statement, Diotima is comparing transcendence via children to transcendence via works of art. Homer and Hesiod created long-lasting works of art. Those works of art are their children, their brain-children, if you will. And, practically speaking, their offspring have lasted far longer than someone’s biological children.

So, we have multiple pathways to transcendence: through children and through the works that we create that live on past us.

And perhaps, just perhaps, Washington’s transcendence came via his devotion to the new country. Perhaps childless politicians feel the same way. Perhaps childless politicians understand that their legacy will be their contribution to the nation. Given this, then, having children makes one no more or no less invested in the future of the nation.

B) Vance suggests that the WHOLE Democrat Party is devoted to childlessness. He suggests that it is part and parcel of their project to destroy the nation. He then offers three examples. But what overall percentage of the Democrat Party is childless (not that there’s anything wrong with that)? What percentage of the Republican Party is childless? We know, for example, that Lindsay Graham (NC) is childless. Is he fit to lead the nation? Is his childlessness also part of the Democrat plan to destroy the family? That seems unlikely.

In fact, some members of both parties are childless. That fact makes them no more and no less suited to be politicians. Vance is cherry picking examples to play to a long-standing prejudice about those who are childless.

C) In point of fact, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg are not childless (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Harris is stepmother to two children, the daughters of Doug Emhoff from a previous marriage. Peter Buttigieg and his husband Chasten (Glezman) Buttigieg have adopted two fraternal twins. Vance does specify the importance of having their “own” children (see below), but he is wrong on the face of it. They are not childless.

D) Vance’s statement is enormously disrespectful to people who adopt, or have stepchildren, or who foster.

I know that it is a deeply-rooted prejudice that many people hold that only blood-related children are “real” children. That bias is at the heart of many religious and political policies. And, yet, we can see examples all over the world in which families are organized differently, and individuals who are not blood related act as loving and devoted parents. We see in the US thousands and thousands of people who adopt and foster children. Those people would throw down their lives for their children. Being blood-related only matters for the person who thinks blood matters.

Vance’s argument is predicated upon prejudice and hurtful to those who have non-biological children.

E) Isn’t it part of the Republican talking point to adopt? Don’t they ask people to put children up for adoption rather than to abort? Who is adopting these children (apart from Pete Buttigieg)? Are they fit to be parents? Are they fit to lead the country? Vance’s desire for people to adopt and simultaneous disparagement of people who do adopt is hypocrisy at its finest.

F) Vance calls the childless Democrats “crazy cat ladies” who are “miserable” and want the rest of the country to be miserable too. It seems that Vance is moving the goalposts around. Initially, he argues that the decision not to have children is a part of a plan. The Democrats and childless lawmakers want to undermine the nuclear family. Then he says that the childless women have made life decisions that have made them miserable and that they want everyone else to be miserable. That’s a very different claim. Is it part of a master plan? Or is it remorse over life choices? Those are two very different claims.

In point of fact, childless women are very often quite happy. Research indicates that “single, childfree women can be just as happy and satisfied in their lives as their coupled counterparts — in some cases, even happier, healthier, and wealthier.” So much for Vance’s crazy cat lady theory.

It’s 2024. People have choices. They have a choice to have children, or not. J. D. Vance has merely used a long-standing cultural stereotype to make political points, and shame on him for it.

Ritch Calvin is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of Queering SF: Readings, Feminist Epistemology and Feminist Science Fiction (Palgrave McMillan) and edited a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls (McFarland). His most recent book is Queering SF: Readings (Aqueduct Press).