The concept of the “biological clock” is so firmly entrenched in popular culture it feels like it might’ve arrived carved onto the back of the Ten Commandments. But in fact its origins are much more recent—specifically, 1978.
In an excerpt at The Guardian from her newly published history of romance in America, Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, Moira Weigel traces the term as a viral shorthand for women’s ever-degrading fertility to a 1978 Washington Post article by Richard Cohen. Titled “The Clock Is Ticking for the Career Woman,” the piece declared that “What there is always, though, is a feeling that the clock is ticking,” and “You hear it wherever you go. Oh, and also this, via the Washington Post:
I recognized that I had been something other than a dispassionate reporter when I was going around asking women about the biological clock. I was getting aid and comfort from their answers.
There was something about their situation that showed, more or less, that this is where liberation ends. This is where a woman is a woman — biologically, physiologically, uncontrovertably different. Don’t get me wrong. We are not talking about recognizing a difference and being glad that some of us are on the “right” side of it — the side of Charlie Chaplin and Pablo Picasso and all the other senior citizen fathers, the side that heeds no clock.
But there is something else here: Once you recognize the difference, you also have to recognize that the difference produces advantages and handicaps. Little about it is simply neutral. This is important because there is now something in the air about women having won their fight for equality and even something about how it was always harder to be a man, anyway. But there are some things we never had to worry about.
At the time the article appeared, the country was transitioning from the women’s lib movement to the backlash days of the 1980s. Cohen wasn’t the only person or reporter fretting about the implications of the feminist movement and more specifically what it meant for motherhood, and there would be many, many more words written about the potential crisis of delayed childbearing. And fertility has always been a complex and fraught issue. But ever since 1978, that fucking term has been hanging over American women, crashing into entirely too many conversations and hollering “TICK TOCK TICK TOCK, LADIES!” There’s just something extra vexing about the image of a countdown clicking closer to zero on your uterus, like a bomb in a summer blockbuster.
So what does the man who seems to have landed us with this hellish meme have to say for himself? Writing at the Washington Post, Lisa Bonos asked him:
I called Cohen last week to ask what he remembered writing about the column. It has been almost 40 years, so he understandably didn’t remember much about it. “I vaguely remember coining the term and that’s it,” he told me.
“I certainly wouldn’t write it the same way” if he were approaching the subject today, he said. “And I certainly wouldn’t be allowed to write it that way now.”
“But I don’t have any problem with the piece,” he added. He admitted that men, too, have a limit on their fertility, but not in the same way as women, Cohen added. “It’s just a biological fact,” he said. “I didn’t invent it.” But he did coin a phrase that has persisted.
Read Cohen’s original article for yourself at the Washington Post.