The Lingering Stigma of Birth Out of Wedlock

This is a continuation of some of the thoughts expressed in “Birth Out of Mainstream”.

The stigma against *being* a child born out of wedlock in the United States has been erased by a great degree (though, based on my understanding of history and various societies, it is rare for a society to attach such a great stigma to birth-out-of-wedlock as was put on children out of wedlock in the United States from about, say, 1900-1965).

I, personally, have never experienced direct oppression as someone who was born out of wedlock. Then again, it might be because most people who encounter me don’t know that I was born out of wedlock. It’s not like I go around with a sign saying that my parents were never married.

Yet I still see traces of this stigma lying around.

People still often use the number of births out of wedlock as a sign of the health of a society, with more births out of wedlock being a bad sign. For example, the book How Cities Work classifies ‘illegitimacy’ as a ‘indicator of social disease’. Well, as someone who actually was born to never-married parents, I don’t get how it reflects on society in a negative way. Sure, changing rates of children born to married couples vs. children born in other arrangements indicates social change, but without a deeper analysis, I think it can only be considered a neutral change.

And let’s look at that word – ‘illegitimacy’. Sure, under some legal and social structures, children born out of wedlock have fewer rights and privileges than children born to married couples. While such legal discrimination is wrong, under such a system, the ‘illegitimate’ label would be accurate in a very narrow sense. However, the United States currently does not practice such legal, or even social, discrimination. How, exactly, are children born out of wedlock less ‘legitimate’ than children born to married parents?

And I do think some of the lingering vestiges of the stigma attached to birth out of wedlock are intertwined with classism and racism. If marriage was something primarily practised by poor black people, and most middle-class white people had kids without ever getting married, I think the stigma would be placed on birth in wedlock, not birth out of wedlock.

I think that the black people I’ve encountered generally have the most sensible views on birth out of wedlock precisely because they have encountered it more in practice. Even if they themselves were born in wedlock, they are more likely to know people born out of wedlock … and to know that, actually, it’s not really that bad. Sure, it’s correlated with poverty, minority-based oppression, and so forth … but the problem is the poverty and the minority-based oppression, not the birth-out-of-wedlock itself.


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