A History of Politicians, Legitimacy and Race

January 31, 1993|By KARIN D. BERRY

Gov. William Donald Schaefer said during his State of the State address Jan. 14 that he wants to reduce the welfare rolls and to discourage unwanted pregnancy. He said that mothers on welfare should be encouraged to use contraceptives including Norplant, and that men who come out of prison or father a number of illegitimate children on welfare should be counseled on birth control and vasectomy.

Mr. Schaefer's efforts represent a theme which is not new to Maryland. According to feminist historian Rickie Solinger, author the 1992 book, "Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade," Maryland attempted to pass similar measures during the 1960s:

"A number of other state legislatures, including . . . Maryland, . . . had majorities that supported preventative, punitive actions against women who might in the future conceive another child defined by these states as 'unwanted.' These states enacted or attempted to enact laws mandating imprisonment or sterilization women who had more than one illegitimate child."

Bills introduced in 1960, 1961, 1962 and 1963 sought to refuse welfare benefits to children born out of wedlock to mothers on welfare. In 1961, an amendment to the bill said that benefits would be withheld "unless and until proof has been presented which satisfies the local unit that the mother has ceased her illicit sexual relationships and is maintaining a suitable home for the child or children."

Ms. Solinger has written an article entitled "Abortion and the Politics of Hospital Abortion Committees, 1950-1970," to be published in the summer issue of Feminist Studies, an academic journal based at the women's studies program at the University of Maryland College Park. She is a visiting scholar in women's studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and an associate of the Rocky Mountain Women's Institute.

Excerpts from an interview with Ms. Solinger follow.

Question: How do you feel that race has an impact on this process -- you compare white women and black women in your book.

Answer: In the period that I focus on, race became an absolutely central aspect of how women were treated.

. . . [B]efore 1940, if a white woman or a black woman had a child without being married, this woman might be marginalized within the larger community or considered to have done something wrong. . . .

For the first time in the late 1930s and the 1940s, unwed mothers became eligible to receive Aid to Dependent Children grants. . . . And as soon as that happened, politicians began to do what we now call "play the race card." And they began to whip up in their constituencies' mind this concept that black women were having babies out of wedlock in order to get higher welfare grants. Now we see what an incredibly enduring charge this is against black women. . . .

The white politicians and policy makers have ascribed illegitimate pregnancy on the part of black women throughout history but intensifying in the 1940s . . . -- they decribed illegitimate pregnancy as a biologically based problem. That is, black women had too much sex, or didn't control their sexuality . . . at the same time, an altogether different charge against white women was emerging, and that was much more the result of the emergence of Freudian theory. . . .

Beginning in the 1940s, if [white girls] had babies without having husbands that became proof, a la Freudian theory, of psychological maladjustment.

. . . The interesting thing is that this psychological diagnosis of white illegitimacy made something altogether new possible: -Z adoption of the white baby.

. . . In some ways . . . it's very difficult to have a simple answer about who had it worse, because . . . black girls and women who had children without having husbands were subjected to incredibly horrendous punitive and public policy at the same time that many of them in the '40s, '50s and '60s had families and lived in communities which could incorporate them and were willing to incorporate them.

But white girls have the really pretty horrible experience of being coercively separated from their babies. . . .

During the period that I write about, over a million young white unwed mothers were told that they weren't mothers and their babies were taken away from them. And those women feel, 30 years later, pretty angry about the fact that they weren't allowed to be the mothers of those babies because they didn't have a properly sanctioned relation[ship] to a man.

Q: You study specifically the period before Roe vs. Wade and right after [World War II]. How does that period differ from 1993 as far as women's choices?

A: I think a lot of the foundation was laid in that period for both public policy and women's responses to their situation today. . . .

One of the real big repercussions of that is that the reproductive rights movement in the last 20 years has been one that has enormous problems of race within it.

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