Every society has mechanisms and institutions for birthing and rearing children. These may or may not be similar to what we call wedlock. In describing domestic groups, sociologists traditionally treated as normative those households made up of a man and a woman who are formally joined in a long-term relationship and jointly raising their shared biological children. However, from a broader historical and cultural perspective, we know that this is just one of scores of possible domestic arrangements. In numerous cultures, the husband-wife relationship is less important than the extended multigenerational family in terms of child-rearing responsibilities. Households in many societies are polygynous, with children of multiple wives, concubines, or slaves fathered by the same man. In some societies a young woman is not considered an attractive marriage candidate until she has proven her fertility by bearing one or more children. In some societies the biological contribution of fatherhood is not acknowledged; rather, the spiritual or social father is salient. And in some societies the mother’s brother normatively functions as the significant man in the lives of children.
While all societies have ideas and rules concerning who is encouraged, allowed, discouraged, or forbidden to bear or raise children, these vary from place to place and over time. Distinctions between legitimate and out-of-wedlock childbearing are not universal, nor are they always consistently applied within a particular society. It tends to be the case that the domestic arrangements of higher-status or wealthier households are considered nobler, more moral, or in some other way better. However, the wealth and day-to-day functioning of those households may depend upon the services and labor provided by people whose domestic arrangements are not in line with whatever constitutes the so-called “ideal” in a particular time or place.
ATTITUDES TOWARD OUT-OF-WEDLOCK BIRTH IN THE UNITED STATES: HISTORICAL TRAJECTORY
The history of out-of-wedlock childbearing in the United States must be understood in the context of the racialized social, economic, and political structures that both preceded and followed independence. Nonmarital birth was an integral part of the slave system: White men married white women but entered into non-legal unions with women who were black or “colored.” While policies varied over time, until the early-to-mid-nineteenth century slave marriages were rarely allowed.
For the free and white population in colonial America, “bastardy” was considered a sin. While the notion that out-of-wedlock childbearing constitutes a moral failure never totally disappeared, during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, nonmarital births increasingly came to be framed in terms of the economic burdens borne by communities forced to support fatherless children. By the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, public discourse, at least regarding white women, shifted from concern with “fallen women” (a pejorative moral category) to concern with “ruined girls” (an innocent population deserving of help). Progressive reformers understood that out-of-wedlock childbearing was a product as well as a cause of social disorder, and thus advocated sex education and better wages for women so that women would be less susceptible to the sexual advances of wealthy men.
The belief that unmarried mothers are at fault for their situation took on new life in the 1920s as experts began treating out-of-wedlock childbearing as “sex delinquency.” Using a new language of psychology and the unconscious, authorities diagnosed sexually active girls as unable to govern their impulses, and growing numbers of young women were sent into the newly created juvenile justice system. Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, the policy of incarcerating women because of sexual crimes (e.g., prostitution) has continued.
Intertwined moral and economic discourses reached new levels of codification when Congress passed the 1996 welfare reform known as the Personal Responsibility Act. The Act opens by proclaiming that, “Marriage is the foundation of a successful society,” and goes on to link various issues—teenage pregnancy, out-of-wedlock births, children raised in single-parent homes, and fathers who fail to pay child support—to high rates of violent crime, children with low cognitive skills, and other highly negative putative outcomes. According to Sharon Hays,
a reading of this statement of the law’s intent would lead one to believe that the problem of poverty itself is the direct result of failures to live up to the family ideal.… Single mothers on welfare are effectively punished for having children out of wedlock or for getting divorced. The punishment they face is being forced to manage on their own with low-wage work. [The Act sets a five-year lifetime limit for public aid regardless of need and a two-year limit for finding full-time employment]. (2004, pp. 17–18)
Race has continued to play a key role in attitudes and policies toward out of wedlock birth in the United States. Criticism of high rates of single-mother families often seems to be thinly disguised criticism of black single mothers, who are variously portrayed as sexually promiscuous, addicted to drugs, or out to “cheat the system” by having more babies for the state to support. Kenneth J. Neubeck and Noel A. Cazenave coined the term “welfare racism” to describe the stereotyped discourse and discriminatory programming associated with the welfare system: “Today, the words welfare mother evoke one of the most powerful racialized cultural icons in contemporary U.S. society” (2001, p. 3).
In the last decades of the twentieth century, “Fathers’ Rights” organizations and evangelical Christian groups have been vocal in asserting that female-headed families are psychologically and socially pathological and that children raised without their fathers are more likely to fail in school, use drugs, and end up in jail. Sociological studies tend not to support this view. The absence of the father does not have a significant impact on the psychological well-being of either daughters or sons. More important than physical presence or absence is how children perceive their relationships with their parents (Wenk et al. 1994). Moreover, given the high divorce rates in the United States, children born to a married mother and father have no guarantee of growing up with their two biological parents. In fact, studies show that unwed U.S. fathers actually see their children more often than do divorced fathers who have remarried.
In the United States in 1970, 10.7 percent of all live births were to non-married women. The percent rose throughout the 1980s, leveling out at about 32 to 33 percent in the mid-1990s, and going up to 34.6 percent in 2003. The biggest increase was among white women for whom rates rose from 5.5 percent in 1970 to 29.4 percent in 2003. For black women, the percent of out-of-wedlock births doubled from 37.5 percent in 1970 to 68.2 percent in 2003. Among Hispanic women, the rate increased from 23.6 percent in 1980 to 45 percent in 2003.
Over these years, the age distribution of out-of-wedlock childbearing indicates a shift toward purposeful out-of-wedlock childbearing among more mature women. In 1970, 50.1 percent of live births to unmarried women were to women under the age of twenty, 31.8 percent to women twenty-one to twenty-four, and 18.1 percent to women twenty-five and older. By 2003 only 24.3 percent of out-of-wedlock births were to women under the age of twenty, while 38.8 percent were to women twenty-one to twenty-four, and 36.9 percent to women twenty-five and older.
In 2004 nearly a third of the 4.8 million babies born in the European Union were born out-of-wedlock. The phenomenon is particularly noticeable in Scandinavia and the three Baltic member-states with a ratio of 57.8 percent in Estonia, 55.4 percent in Sweden, 45.4 percent in Denmark, and 45.3 percent in Latvia. The lowest levels of children born out of wedlock are in southern Europe with 3.3 percent in Cyprus, 4.9 percent in Greece, and 14.9 percent in Italy.
It should be noted that in statistics from Europe and the United States, the term out-of-wedlock means only that the newborn’s parents are not registered with the government as “married”; it does not mean that the child is being raised only by its mother. In the Scandinavian countries, in particular, nonmarital births generally take place in long-term committed relationships to parents uninterested in church weddings and not in need of government-issued marriage certificates in order to have pensions or other benefits. Americans too are much more likely than ever before to bear children in reasonably stable partnerships—including same-sex partnerships—that are not legally recognized marriages.
Efforts to explain rates of out-of-wedlock births in the United States have been characterized more by sentiment than scientific evidence. Conservatives typically attribute the increase to overly generous federal welfare benefits that encourage poor women to have children. However, a comparison of out-of-wedlock birth rates with changes in welfare benefits over time does not show a correlation between the two. Liberals have tended to attribute the increase to declines in the marriageability of black men due to shortages of jobs for less-educated men, the disproportionate deaths of black men in the military, and high rates of incarceration of young black men. Demographic studies indicate, however, that only a small percentage of the decline in black marriage rates can be explained by the shrinking of the pool of eligible men.
A popular set of explanations maintains that single parenthood has increased because of changes in attitudes toward sexuality. While some analysts blame sex education in schools for encouraging early sexual activity, others advocate the benefits of sex education in helping teens make informed decisions regarding sexuality and contraception. Still others argue that the legalization of abortion and increased availability of contraception (birth control pills) give women tools to control the number and timing of their children. These tools empower women to make choices regarding childbearing and curb customs such as “shotgun marriages” that traditionally reduced rates of out-of-wedlock births (though not of out-of-wedlock conception).
SEE ALSO Birth Control; Marriage; Slavery; Welfare
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Edin, Kathryn, and Maria Kefalas. 2005. Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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Hertz, Rosanna. 2006. Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice: How Women Are Choosing Parenthood without Marriage and Creating the New American Family. New York: Oxford University Press.
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Neubeck, Kenneth J., and Noel A. Cazenave. 2001. Welfare Racism: Playing the Race Card against America’s Poor. New York: Routledge.
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