FROM PROBLEM GIRLS TO WELFARE QUEENS: TEENAGE PREGNANCY AND PUBLIC POLICY, 1950-1980
Contos Krueger, Kristen Amber 1981-
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By the 1976, newspapers, parents, and politicians feared that an “epidemic” of teenage pregnancy was sweeping the United States. Their anxiety stemmed not from a statistical rise in the rate teenage pregnancy but from changes in the public image of teenage parents. The epidemic rhetoric arose from a series of changes in the perception of pregnant and parenting teens underwent a series of changes from 1950 to 1980. The 1950s image of the “problem girl,” rescued by maternity homes and rehabilitated through relinquishing her baby for adoption, ceased to be relevant and maternity homes closed their doors in large numbers. The decline of maternity homes forced teen pregnancy into the public eye. Though African American and other minorities had always dealt with teen parenthood within their communities, white families who had relied on the secrecy of maternity homes had to find a new way to care for their problem girls. Teenage girls chose to stay home and keep their babies as unwed mothers, evidence of how the feminist call for women's independence had trickled down even to very young teens. One result was the passage of federal legislation that provided modest programs to aid parenting teens. This dissertation argues that the 1970s were a decade of potential opportunity for adolescent mothers, a brief interlude where it seemed possible to treat pregnant teens as something more than “problem girls.” Teenage mothers and their advocates argued they were young women who could move beyond one sexual mishap if given the right support and education. However, as the decade came to a close, conservative voices grew stronger. To pass key legislation for pregnant and parenting teens, liberal leaders began to threaten that without support, these girls would end up dependent on welfare for their entire lives. Conservatives seized on this image, and the “welfare queen” was born. To effectively evaluate this story, this project uncovers the voices of teenage girls themselves in interviews, letters to advice columns, and fan letters to authors of young adult fiction in addition to relying on sources from professional and legislative groups. This dissertation not only analyzes the changing experiences and perceptions of teenage pregnancy after Roe v. Wade, it also demonstrates that teenage girls approached sexuality in a more nuanced and thoughtful manner than adults believed.