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A History of Politicians, Legitimacy and Race

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

[Because] black women and white women have had such enormously different experiences, partly the result of these extremely damaging public policies, has made it very difficult for [them] to see the issues in a similar way. . . .

The reproductive rights movement since the late '60s . . . has been most visibly represented by organizations like NARAL [National Abortion Rights Action League] and Planned Parenthood . . . [that] have traditionally been dominated by white women.

Unfortunately, . . . the reproductive rights movement has been focused almost exclusively on the right to abortion because that's been such an embattled right. . . .

But what needs to happen is that women and people who care about real reproductive rights need to develop a much broader concept and a much broader field of action in addressing these issues of not just abortion rights, but reproductive rights in general. We're also talking about the right to prenatal health care, the right to child care, the right to decent housing, jobs and all these things that are linked up to reproductive health care.

Q: There's another part of this that we in society don't seem to be discussing any more than we ever have -- the man's role.

A: . . . [W]e're still enmeshed in a period of extreme economic dislocation in many communities. I don't think that we're going to see any changes in the level of responsibility that men either feel they can take or have the kind of urge to take when the job situation is so bad. Those two things go hand in hand. Men can't get jobs, men aren't very likely to take on the responsibility of being fathers.

Secondly, there's this whole strain in American culture which is almost as thick as racism: misogyny, the blaming of women. I think we see that against black women well as white women.

. . . I know very few women who become single parents because all things being equal that's the thing they want to do most of all.

Women adapt themselves to the circumstances that they find themselves in, to a certain extent. Many women, understanding that there aren't men to take on the responsibility of being a father, don't then decide to deny themselves the possibility of being mothers. Plus there's the issue of whether they have access to birth control and whether or not they have access to abortion services, and whether they have access to choices of many kinds.

. . . Surely the fact that you've noticed an absence of the male person in my book puts me in the same category as people who write this from a woman's perspective and don't address the issue of where is the man.

I think one goes back and forth between saying these men are inexcusably irresponsible and, what does one expect in a society and a culture which allows to persist such an terrible unemployment situation. . .

Q: Your book mentioned a law in Georgia -- I believe that it was one of the first laws sanctioning women on welfare for having additional children. In 1992, New Jersey passed a similar law that would cut welfare benefits for women who had additional children. Do you think we're coming full circle on this issue 40 years later?

A: For me it revolves around the willingness and the capacity in this culture to blame women and their bodies and their reproductive capacity for the problems of society. I don't know if I would use the metaphor of a full circle. I'm not sure it's ever changed.

And I think that's what we still see in New Jersey and Wisconsin and all the states that are trying to punish women for having babies as if it weren't for women's irresponsible sexuality we'd have a great society.

Q: Do you think we'll see further types of legislation like the one in New Jersey? Do you think women will be more besieged to protect some of their reproductive rights?

A: . . . As long as you have a mood of taxpayer resistance, the fires can be very easily fanned against such things as welfare expenditures. And particularly in a poor economic climate, you will have welfare expenditures. When you have this citizenry that is willing to lash out against these kind of expenditures, what you get is women-blaming. Until we get some turnaround in the public sentiment about supporting public expenses, you'll have women-blaming. I really tie that to the mood of the voters.

. . . [T]here is this other depressing issue. I see Roe vs. Wade and the legalization of abortion as having been in part a feminist victory, giving women the right control their own bodies. But . . . Roe v. Wade was a response to fear of policy-makers that the population of the United States is becoming less white, and . . . they didn't want poor women -- code name [for] black women -- to be having so many babies. They were fearful of unrest in the ghettos. So it was of interest to policymakers to legalize abortion and make contraception available and in some cases sterilization abuse to control the population of non-white people.

One of the reasons that Roe vs. Wade has become so embattled these last 20 years is that it never really established firmly enough as a woman's right. It was too closely identified with and firmly supported by the population control people, who wanted to shape the size and the character and color of the population of this country.

Karin D. Berry is a layout editor for The Sun and The Evening Sun.

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