Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-02989

“Out of innocent confusion... was born heartbreak!” These graphics advertized a 1949 film, “Not Wanted,” directed and produced by Hollywood star Ida Lupino. The tragic story featured Sally Forrest (as the unmarried mother) and Keefe Brasselle. Compare this image to the satirical image below, which shows a character from the recent TV drama, “The X-Files.” The contrast illustrates how dramatically attitudes toward illegitimacy have changed in recent decades. Before the 1960s, out-of-wedlock pregnancy was such a stigmatized subject that no one would have poked fun at it in this way. Unmarried mothers actually were shocking.



Illegitimacy is not a widely used word today, and young people may not even recognize it as an insult. The term designated unmarried mothers, unmarried fathers, and their unlucky children as deviants. All were called “illegitimate,” and illegitimate children were sometimes also called “bastards.” As a label, illegitimacy described their collective status as outcasts who were legally and socially inferior to members of legitimate families headed by married couples. Unmarried birth parents and children suffered penalties ranging from confinement in isolated maternity homes and dangerous baby farms to parental rejection and community disapproval. Before the 1960s, unmarried mothers were usually considered undeserving of the public benefits offered to impoverished widows and deserted wives. They were generally denied mothers’ pensions, which virtually all states granted beginning in 1910, and Aid to Dependent Children, a federal program created by the Social Security Act of 1935. (Divorced women and non-white women were also excluded.) To be illegitimate was to be shamed and shunned.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the belief that children born out of wedlock posed significant social and public health problems was widespread. The U.S. Children’s Bureau, for example, devoted a great deal of attention during its early years to combating infant mortality, and its research and programs in this area focused disproportionately on illegitimate children and their mothers. Why? These children were at higher risk than their legitimate counterparts for malnutrition, mediocre child care, maternal separation, and other hazards. Unmarried mothers were, by definition, unattached to male breadwinners and wage work was their only option for economic survival. The unskilled occupations in which they were concentrated, such as domestic service and wet-nursing, ironically required them to care for others’ children but made it very difficult for them to raise their own. Unmarried women and children may have been tainted with sexual immorality, but those who lived under the shadow of illegitimacy were endangered. They needed help, according to reformers and policy-makers, who insisted that alleviating the stigma associated with illegitimate birth status would do more to improve child welfare and family life than either contempt or condemnation.

Eugenicists were also dismayed by illegitimacy because they considered it a major factor in the reproduction of mental deficiency, disease, and anti-social behavior. According to their view, “feeble-minded” children were more likely to be born to unmarried women because illegitimate pregnancies were byproducts of retardation, insanity, epilepsy, or other mental defects. It is not surprising, therefore, that many native-born Americans of European heritage worried that their own decreasing fertility rates forecast “race suicide” and viewed child-bearing in other social groups with alarm. New immigrants, African-Americans, and members of impoverished rural white communities were implicated in the scandal of illegitimate births. The fact that poor and minority communities sometimes displayed greater acceptance of unmarried mothers was sometimes cited as a reason to deny children in these communities adoption services. In the case of African-American children, perceptions of cultural difference in regard to illegitimacy were compounded by patterns of legal segregation that impacted child welfare as surely as they did education, housing, employment, and voting.

The fact that illegitimate white children might be placed for adoption casually, with barely any regulation or oversight, worried child welfare reformers during the early twentieth century. Statistical studies have recently shown that a majority of birth parents before 1940 were married—which suggests that poverty, desertion, illness, and other family crises may have been as significant as illegitimacy in leading to surrender and placement. But many adopters preferred illegitimate babies and toddlers and went out of their way to obtain them. They believed that the dishonorable origins of illegitimate children made it less likely that natal relatives would ever come back to claim them or interfere in their lives. Such views led to the charge early in the century that adoption encouraged illegitimacy. Surrender, critics insisted, allowed unmarried men and women to avoid the consequences of sexual indulgence: permanent responsibility for raising and supporting the children they conceived.

But the desperation of many unmarried mothers was impossible to ignore, and it inspired a curious combination of sympathy and scrutiny. Reformers who set out to professionalize child welfare services did not think that adoption was the answer to illegitimacy. They believed that preserving natal families was better, even when those families were incomplete, female-headed, and burdened by disgrace. They promoted state laws, such as the one passed in Maryland in 1916, which required women to nurse their babies and prohibited infant placements for a period of six months. This kind of regulation limited the choices available to unmarried mothers deliberately. The point was not only to choke off the adoption black market and reduce other risks involved in placing illegitimate infants, but to insure that the recipients of public protection were subjected to moral discipline and behavioral control. The authors of such laws believed the state’s first priority was to protect the most vulnerable victims, and illegitimate babies were more vulnerable than their mothers, even when those mothers were vulnerable to sexual victimization.

Attitudes changed sharply during and after World War II. The war years brought increases in illegitimacy, including among married women whose pregnancies occurred while their husbands were stationed far away for periods exceeding nine months. After 1945, illegitimacy was reinterpreted as a sign of individual maladjustment and psychological disorder, and adoption consequently appeared a positive solution for many children. Freudian developmental theory contributed to this transition. Psychoanalysis reached the peak of its popularity after 1945, sexualizing childhood and adolescence while stressing the influence of unconscious sexual desires throughout the entire life course. Earlier in the century, figures such as Marion Kenworthy, Jessie Taft, and Viola Bernard had encouraged social workers, psychiatrists, and other helping professionals to consider nonmarital pregnancies as expressions of neurosis. Girls and women who had sex before or outside of marriage got pregnant on purpose, whether they knew it or not, according to the Freudian worldview. As a pathological and invariably unsuccessful attempt to resolve emotional problems in dysfunctional families of origin, illegitimacy became the property of psychology and science rather than morality and religion. By 1950, women could no longer rely on sexual purity and difference from men as the foundations of their claims to virtue. It became much harder for women to claim innocence in cases of illegitimate pregnancy, and that made it much easier to view adoption as a good thing.

Demographic and cultural trends evident by midcentury also lessened resistance to separating babies from their unmarried mothers and boosted the reputation of early adoption. Unmarried mothers after midcentury were more likely to be white, middle-class adolescents, and their mortified families were determined to give these wayward daughters a second chance to find normal love and maternity through marriage. In the post-Nazi era, the nature-nurture debate swung decisively toward nurture, and one result was that eugenic anxieties about the perils of adopting illegitimate infants moved underground. After the exterminationist regime of National Socialism, which featured not only death camps but an ambitious sterilization program for the biologically unfit, talk about defective children and mothers had such abhorent implications that it became unmentionable, if not entirely unthinkable. Instead of making them unadoptable, mental and physical disabilities gave children special needs. In theory, they qualified for family life even if they were still unwanted in practice.

Adoption professionals, who had worked so hard to keep natal families together just a few decades earlier, changed their minds about family preservation. Between 1940 and 1970, they acted on the belief that placing children with married, infertile couples would save them from doomed lives with unmarried, emotionally unstable mothers who could not offer them real love or security. Matching practices during this period, along with confidentiality and sealed records, reflected the hope that adoption might completely substitute one family for another, as if from scratch, severing forever the embarrassing ties between adoptees and their unmarried birth parents.

All of this changed again after the sexual revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, and after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973. During the past three decades, the stigma associated with out-of-wedlock births—and nonmarital sexuality in general—has decreased dramatically. Teen pregnancy still causes periodic panic, but even very young mothers and their babies are no longer ridiculed as “illegitimates.”

That the meanings of illegitimacy and adoption could undergo such drastic change suggests a broader revolution in modern American thought and culture. During the second half of the twentieth century, fixed and singular standards of conduct gave way under the pressure of social and intellectual movements that championed pluralism and diversity. In an age of civil rights, democracy required new tolerance for a wide spectrum of values. In spite of the powerful resurgence of religious fundamentalism and social conservatism in public life since the 1960s, there is no longer “one right way” to live, love, or bring families into being in the United States.


Document Excerpts

Page Updated: 2-24-2012
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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
(541) 346-3699
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