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Teenage motherhood

02 November 2021
5 min read
Volume 29 · Issue 11
 Teenage motherhood has been portrayed negatively for decades, at least partly because of the historic link between illegitimacy and becoming pregnant at a young age
Teenage motherhood has been portrayed negatively for decades, at least partly because of the historic link between illegitimacy and becoming pregnant at a young age

Abstract

Anita Johnson discusses the history, politics and misconceptions surrounding teenage motherhood in England and Wales over the last century

Much has been said and written about teenage motherhood, portraying the negative picture that teenage mothers are problematic, a financial burden on society and the cause of poor life outcomes. Despite being released in 1980, the lyrics of The Special's (1980) track ‘Too Much Too Young’ highlight the strong opinions and discriminative views that have overshadowed teenage motherhood throughout time. These views have often been shared with the public through contentious political speeches and the media.

Teenage motherhood in the 19th and 20th centuries

For centuries, early childbearing and large families ensured economic independence, yet teenage pregnancy has become associated with unmarried motherhood. Historian Pat Thane states that 20% of first births in the early 19th century, and probably 50% of those conceived overall, were born outside of marriage, which suggests that pre-marital sex was normal (Thane, 2011). In the 20th century, many unmarried mothers and their children remained absent from official records, with younger mothers absorbed into wider family. A large gap between older sibling and youngest helped to ensure that a new baby to a younger member appeared the norm. Early censuses did not always list the mother with the child or the truth was not told to hide illegitimacy, so exact details can be difficult to confirm (Thane, 2011).

Teenage motherhood has been portrayed negatively for decades, at least partly because of the historic link between illegitimacy and becoming pregnant at a young age

Illegitimacy, rather than teenage motherhood, remained the focus of negative messages to the public throughout the 20th century, with an increase in the proportion of illegitimate births in wartime because of the movement of people, and the fragility and uncertainty that wartime brings (Thane, 2011). After World War II, a study by Leontine Young (1945) from the New York School of Social Work portrayed unmarried mothers as neurotic and psychologically disturbed. While these women were not seen as promiscuous or mentally unstable, she believed these women set out to become mothers, which brought their mental health into question. British psychologist John Bowlby (1952) suggested that unmarried mothers had disturbed personalities, labelling them ‘psychopathic’ and ‘defective’, leading to a recommendation that their babies were adopted; for some, this meant a life confined to a mental health institution.

Birth rates through the years

The post-war baby boom contributed to a rise in fertility. By 1950, 49% of all live births in England and Wales to married women in their teens were conceived before marriage (Wimperis, 1960). The high marriage rate following conception offers a simple explanation of society's views on illegitimacy; marriage often only took place if pregnancy occurred or the marriage was planned. In 1950, 15.1% of illegitimate children were born to mothers aged 19 years and under, with only 3.8% of legitimate births acknowledging the need for parental consent to marry between the ages of 16 and 21 years old (Wimperis, 1960). The Family Reform Act of 1969 changed the law to require parental consent only until the age of 18 years.

The 1960s saw an increase in promiscuity and sexual activity that led to a further increase in fertility rates. Social changes saw a rise in the use of the contraceptive pill and adoption, as well as a steady increase in cohabitation. Despite the Abortion Act of 1967, there was still a high incidence of marriage in the younger age group who became pregnant and, in doing so, conformed to family values.

The biggest change in the 1970s was the move from secrecy surrounding unmarried motherhood, adultery and cohabitation, especially in the middle classes, leading to a new era of openness (Thane, 2011). However, with openness comes visibility. The focus again was on ‘unmarried mothers’ rather than teenage mothers. At this time, women were still viewed poorly by the neighbourhood, especially if perceived to have come from a good family (Davis, 2012). Many middle class mothers may have been coerced into early marriage, abortion or adoption. A constant phenomenon over time has been that if there was money, there were choices.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS, 2019) figures for 1971 report the highest trend in teenage births up to the modern day, with 50.6% of women under 20 years old having given birth, compared to 6% in 1923 (ONS, 2014). Despite the slow decline and fluctuations in the late 1980s and 1990s, teenage motherhood steadily decreased. Today, the current rate of teenage births sits at 11.2% (ONS, 2019). However, there is little differentiation in the figures between unmarried motherhood and age.

Looking at fertility rates over the years, it appears that young childbearing was normal and, contrary to belief, many couples married at a young age. If children were born to young parents and absorbed by the family, this rendered them invisible, making them harder to identify and stigmatise. Much is written about lone motherhood, and although they are inextricably linked, the discourse is not clear around teenage motherhood alone. Statistics released by Gingerbread (2019), a leading charity working with single parent families, state that less than 1% of parents (ie including fathers as well as mothers) were teenagers in 2019. The ONS (2019) figures suggest this is because of a decline in the teenage pregnancy rate, and married couples or those in civil partnerships represent two-thirds of families in the UK, the most common family type.

The role of the media and politics

Sex propaganda films in the 1970s such as ‘Don't be like Brenda’ were used to convey to the younger population that their reckless behaviour spoilt lives, including messages such as ‘Brenda has spoiled two lives, her own and her child’ (Hugh Baddeley Productions, 1973). The focus this time was on the permissive society and ‘condemnation of promiscuity’, rather than ‘preparation for sexual maturity’ (McGahan, 2009). Without any forward thinking, the media delivered a stream of sexual commercialism to adolescents, despite the huge gap between sexual maturity and financial security, an issue that had been raised by Wimperis (1960). In the 1970s, moral behaviour was a key focus point of messages in the media, as conveyed by Sir Keith Joseph (1974), Conservative MP, in his famous 1974 speech, ‘our human stock is threatened’.

Teenage pregnancy is and always has been a socially constructed issue. As women began to plan to have children outside of marriage, there was a shift in the focus from illegitimacy to teenage motherhood, in terms of negative perceptions (Arai, 2009). In 1988, Margaret Thatcher (1988) attacked young single girls who were perceived to have deliberately become pregnant to jump the housing queue and gain welfare payments. However, Thane (2011) argued the real reason the numbers of single mothers in council houses were rising was because they had previously been an excluded group in society.

The reality of this new visibility was that by the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, the number of ‘unmarried’ mothers grew, ultimately attracting political and public attention that their lifestyle choice made them benefit dependent. Despite little apparent evidence to support a rise in the number of teenage mothers as part of this group, moral panic focused on the potential impact of this and of the loss of the traditional family. Conservative leaders Margaret Thatcher, and John Major (1993) politically attacked this deviation from the norm and committed to lead Britain back to traditional Conservative ‘morality’ with the ‘Back to Basics’ campaign.

With the advent of New Labour in 1997, Lisa Arai (2009) explains that attention shifted to teenage pregnancy as a ‘calamity’ and ‘social ill’, rather than a morality issue. Although it remained strongly linked with social inequality, it was represented as a disaster or tragedy, preventing achievement (Arai, 2009). Arai (2009) suggests that using the language ‘social exclusion’ dressed the same issue up under a different name. With perceived high rates of teenage fertility, the backdrop of Jack Straw's contentious speech advocating adoption (BBC News, 1999) and John Redwood's (1993) attack on absent fathers, the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy was born. Its mission was to achieve two main goals: halve the under-18 conception rates by 2010, and increase the participation of teenage parents in education, training or employment (Social Exclusion Unit, 1999). Critics of the plan argued that fertility rates were already falling and that the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy stressing the negative consequences of social exclusion because of teenage pregnancy only reinforced the perception that young mothers were a social or public health problem (Duncan, 2007; Arai, 2009). What is of interest and missed in the historical discourse is that teenage motherhood was often desired by the mothers, with studies supporting the positive and life-changing outcomes (Seamark and Lings, 2004; McDermott and Graham, 2005; Clark, 2015).

Conclusion

Learning from history is key. While becoming a mother outside of marriage has come to be seen in a more positive light, teenage mothers still attract unwanted attention. Looking back at the passage of time reminds us of the ever changing scene. Without this reflection, we are unable to contribute to the current thinking around policy and action in any efficient or useful way.