This dissertation seeks to understand the basis for the re-characterization of unwed mothers from pitiable to contemptible during the interwar period by analyzing the experiences of unwed motherhood after the baby's birth. The plight of unwed mothers in Minnesota serves as a compelling case study. Minnesota's late Progressive-era children's legislation (of which a large portion was dedicated to the welfare of illegitimate children) was widely regarded as the national standard in modern child welfare management. Popularly called the Minnesota Plan, this 1917 legislation shifted the social welfare emphasis away from the unwed mother and onto her child. This slight shift in emphasis created a new paradigm in social welfare work; suddenly the unwed mother was implicitly beyond reformation while her child was explicitly in danger from her influence.
The creation of the pathological unwed mother depended on the confluence of several separate yet related trends regarding the legal status of illegitimate children and changing practices in social work and the social sciences. In an effort to protect illegitimate children, the Minnesota Plan made them ipso facto wards of the state and transformed social workers into the determiners and guardians of the children's best interests. The subjectivity involved with determining hallowed social welfare precepts like health, happiness, and opportunity would prove to be particularly damaging to unwed mothers, who typically fell short in all three categories when case workers visited the home.
At the same moment in time that social workers were gaining these new state-sanctioned powers and duties, they were also searching for validation and recognition from the larger community of professions. The pursuit of "scientific" methodology dominated the field's efforts at legitimation and drove innovations in practice, most notably by relying on social science and psychiatric studies to scientifically prove the subjective diagnoses social workers made daily in the course of their case work duties. These studies created a pseudo "science of illegitimacy" by the 1930s. A sudden increase in studies that measured the emotional, developmental, and psychological handicaps of children stymied by the stigma of illegitimate birth verified the anecdotal observations made by social workers during home visits and thus "scientifically" began to transform unwed mothers to unfit mothers.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. January 2013. Major: History of Medicine and Biological Sciences. Advisor:Dr. Jennifer Gunn. 1 computer file (PDF); vii, 374 pages, appendices 1-2.
Kinzelman, Cara Armida.
A certain kind of girl:social workers and the creation of the pathological unwed Mother, 1918-1940.
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