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
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.