Charlotte Lowe, “Intelligence and Social Background of the Unmarried Mother,” 1927

The mentality of unmarried mothers and their children was considered a significant social problem, as well as a particular risk in adoption, during the first several decades of the twentieth century. Influenced by eugenics, many Americans suspected that unmarried mothers were either morally delinquent or mentally deficient. They endorsed policies, such as institutionalization and sterilization, designed to control reproductive behavior. Mental testers and developmentalists were among those who believed that science offered solutions to social problems. They probed the intelligence, age, occupation, education, family background, and even the leisure activities of unmarried mothers. Such studies were often linked to nature-nurture research as well as to the urgent question of illegitimacy. As this excerpt by a Minnesota state psychologist suggests, professionals worried about the public costs of female-headed families and about their ominous reproductive potential long before they agreed that adoption might be a positive option for either unmarried mothers or their children.

The Research Bureau of the State Board of Control of Minnesota last year conducted a psychological study of a group of unmarried mothers. . . .

Eighty-two of the unmarried mothers, or 23,84 per cent, had I.Q.’s under 75—that is, would be classified as feebleminded. This percentage is 4.6 times as large as the corresponding percentage among the school children, of whom only 5.18 per cent had I.Q.’s under 75. The percentage of border-line cases (I.Q.’s 75-84) is 2.09 times as large among the unmarried mothers as among the school children–24.42 per cent as compared with 11.65 per cent. On the other hand, the percentage of dull cases (I.Q.’s 85-94) is only 0.8 times as large among the unmarried mothers as in the school children; the average (I.Q.’s 95-104) 0.5 times as large; the bright (I.Q.’s 105-114) 0.3 times as large; and the very bright (I.Q.’s 115-124) 0.6 times as large. The percentage of superior cases (I.Q.’s over 125) is 1.25 times as large among the unmarried mothers, but the group is so small that this figure is probably not significant. . . .


The median age of the entire group was twenty years, and the age having the greatest number of cases was eighteen. Seventeen and seven-tenths per cent were less than eighteen years old, and 55.2 per cent were less than twenty-one years. Relating this to the intelligence, we find that the younger they are, the brighter they are, as shown in the following summary:

From 15 to 19 years average I.Q. is 92.0
From 20 to 24 years average I.Q. is 90.5
From 25 to 29 years average I.Q. is 85.2
From 30 to 34 years average I.Q. is 74.0
35 and over average I.Q. is 63.6

Interpreting these figures, we made the deduction that many of the brighter girls are delinquent because of the impulsiveness or emotional instability of youth, and need only the sobering effect of years to solve their problems. If this is so, does it not seem that the ideal social work would be to get in touch with these girls before they became delinquent? The facts seem to show also that so far as learning from age is concerned, the feebleminded remain forever young and therefore in constant need of supervision and protection. . . .

The burden to the state.—In 1924 there were 1,065 illegitimate births reported in Minnesota. About 50 per cent of all illegitimate children reported are supported by the state for at least four years. According to these facts, there are about 500 of these children added each year. This makes a constant number of about 2,000 who are being supported continually by the state. Computing from the five-dollar-a-week-board basis, which is a very rough computation, the state is paying half a million dollars every year for the support of these illegitimate children. And this does not tell half the tale. In the first place, a great many births are not reported to the state, but later these ldren become dependents. Secondly, a large number of those who are dependent the first four years of their lives are not adoptive and remain charges all their lives in one institution or another. It seems that it would be more economical for the state, first, to support more club houses and neighborhood houses where girls would be housed better, entertained better, and supervised better; second, to employ more social workers and visiting teaching; and third, to spend more money for the detection and care of the feebleminded.


First, that every unmarried mother be given a mental test as the first step in the effort to understand her as an individual.

Second, that the ones found to be feebleminded be prevented, if possible, either by segregation, close supervision, or sterilization, from having any more children.

Third, that more ways and means be provided for reaching young girls before they have become delinquent.

Fourth, that the county superintendents, the social workers, and the churches of the small towns and country districts watch our for their girls leaving school to see what they do and where they go.

Fifth, that the churches, social workers, and teachers do not overlook the girls who are living at home, as they are just as apt to become delinquent as the girls who have left home.


Source: Charlotte Lowe, “Intelligence and Social Background of the Unmarried Mother,” Mental Hygiene 11 (October 1927):783, 785-787, 793-794.

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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
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