Stigma remains for the young and poor

May 29, 1992|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

Acceptance of unwed mothers like Murphy Brown has grown, even as Americans wistfully cling to an ideal in which every Harriet has an Ozzie, according to opinion watchers.

"[Vice President] Dan Quayle is right in the sense that people believe in the preferability of the two-parent upbringing of the child, but he is perhaps off the mark in thinking there's an automatic shame to a woman's having a child out of wedlock," said Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago. "There has been a major increase in the acceptance of unwed motherhood."

Mr. Smith points to a 1985 survey in which 42 percent of those polled said they thought a woman should be allowed to have children outside marriage, compared to the 12 percent who felt that way in 1970.

Still, that 42 percent, however great an increase it represents, remains less than a majority. And, in fact, another survey conducted in 1989 similarly found that 59 percent of those polled said it was unacceptable for women to have children out of wedlock.

"There is still a lot of traditional sexual morality around, and it is concentrated in certain groups, such as Protestant fundamentalists," Mr. Smith said. "Also, you do get a big age differential: The younger generations are much more permissive . . . because they were raised in more permissive times."

Researchers like Kristen Moore of Child Trends, a Washington-based organization, make a distinction between kinds of mothers: On the one hand, there is the Murphy Brown kind -- high-income, established in her field, and aware that her biological clock may soon run out and deprive her forever of bearing a child. More common, though, is the other kind of unwed mother, the young, perhaps teen-age woman who, by getting pregnant, perhaps gives up or delays educational, career and lifestyle opportunities.

"The image of single mothers by choice -- really making a decision to get pregnant -- describes a small number of non-marital births in the United States," said Ms. Moore, Child Trends director of research. "They face [a stigma], but there's also a certain amount of respect that they've chosen to have a child. It's a strong and brave thing to do.

"But there are very few affluent, older, educated, never-married mothers," she added. "The never-married mother tends to be young, poorly educated, poor and, disproportionately, minority."

Census figures bear that out: Among black women aged 15 to 29, more than 78 percent of their first children are born out of wedlock. (For whites of the same age group, it's 32.8 percent; for Hispanics, it's 42.7 percent.)

Because unwed motherhood is so prevalent among black women, the community simply has had to accept it as a fact of life, Mr. Smith said.

"There is a much different culture, in terms of statistics -- out-of-wedlock birth is the most common thing," Mr. Smith said. "The fact of its common occurrence makes it, if not acceptable, ** at least accepted in the community."

Additionally, there can be less of an economic incentive for a poor mother to get married than for her wealthier counterpart, he said. A woman on welfare, for example, can lose benefits if she marries, he said.

"Dan Quayle said something to the effect that the best way for a woman to get ahead is to marry a man," Mr. Smith said. "Statistically, that's correct, but that's much truer for whites than blacks."

Still, such single mothers may not be single forever, he added.

"It is fairly common to have one or two children, then get married," said Mr. Smith, citing the case of Sugar Ray Leonard and his now ex-wife, Juanita. "The marriage may not be economically possible or economically beneficial at first . . . but sometimes it leads to that."

Rosetta Stith, principal of Laurence G. Paquin Middle and Senior High School for Expectant Teenage Mothers in Baltimore, said she has found in her 10 years of working with pregnant teens that most people, unlike Mr. Quayle, tend to object to unwed mothers only if they are young and/or poor.

"No one's going to deny Murphy her baby -- she's a career woman. We don't care what you do any more unless we have to pay for it," she said. "The stigma has gone down to the young girl."

And she believes the Murphy Brown example isn't going to make her job any more difficult. Her students "can't relate to [Murphy]. As far as they're concerned, she's very, very upper class. And she's not anywhere near their age. Murphy's not important to them. Now if it happened on '90210,' that would be different."

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