Using adolescent birth rates to measure teen pregnancy, adolescent parenthood has been a fairly common experience throughout American history. (It is nearly impossible to gain an accurate measure of teen pregnancy rates over time, because not all pregnancies result in births.) The most recent American teen birth rate of approximately 51.1 births per 1,000 adolescent females is consistent with historical trends and matches the 1920 figure. Nonetheless, since the 1970s, American politicians, policy makers, and social critics have condemned the perceived "epidemic of teenage pregnancy." This label reveals that critics have little knowledge about the incidence of teen pregnancy and parenthood in America's past.
From colonial times through the late nineteenth century, the vast majority of Americans had chosen to marry and have children by their early to mid-twenties. Marriage and parenthood was a rational choice for people living in a society dependent on family production. Race, ethnicity, class, and region could influence individual circumstances, with rural areas experiencing the lowest age at marriage. Few people worried about teen pregnancy as long as the expecting mother married before giving birth. There was strong social pressure to marry before becoming a parent, but the high number of babies born less than nine months after marriage ceremonies shows that many young couples taking their marriage vows were already expecting a child. State codes outlining minimum-age-at-marriage laws followed English common law that permitted girls as young as twelve to marry without parental consent.
The ability to bear children generally established the move from childhood to adulthood for most females. The capacity to do physical labor marked the change for boys from childhood dependence to a state of semi-dependence known as youth. For males, marriage marked full adult independence and its associated responsibilities. Physical capacities and life circumstance set the dividing line between childhood and adulthood, not age. Poor diet and common childhood illnesses delayed physical maturity for many. The majority of girls did not reach menarche (and their ability to have children) until sixteen or seventeen years of age. Many boys assumed strenuous jobs early in their ADOLESCENCE, but few could earn enough to support a family until their early to mid-twenties. This combination of biological, social, and economic factors limited pregnancy and parenthood for most teens.
By 1900, things began to change. The move to an industrial economy had radically changed everyday life for many Americans. Improved health conditions and better economic opportunities for young males in the Progressive Era encouraged a growing number of couples to marry and become parents at younger ages, in their teens and early twenties. Interestingly, this trend toward early marriage and parenthood ran counter to the social definition of adolescence that had become increasingly popular among urban middle-class families. Since the 1820s, a growing number of middle-class parents had been sending their adolescent children to HIGH SCHOOLS. Advocates of the urban-middle-class-family ideal maintained that adolescence was a distinct period of life separate from adult responsibilities. They encouraged parents to leave their teenaged children in school instead of sending them to work or allowing them to marry.
In 1904, G. STANLEY HALL formally defined the broad psychological and physiological parameters of modern adolescence in his two volume work, Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion, and Education. Hall concluded that the teen years were a time of unavoidable physiological and psychological turmoil. While it was normal for teens to think about sex, Hall cautioned that adolescents were too immature, both physically and psychologically, to engage in sexual intercourse or become parents.
Many child welfare reformers agreed. New child labor laws, compulsory education legislation, the establishment of juvenile courts, efforts to control teen sexuality, and a myriad of other age-specific policies reflected new social attitudes defining modern adolescence. A growing number of teens, however, resisted the new restrictions on their autonomy. In 1900, less than 1 percent of males and 11 percent of females fourteen through nineteen years of age were ever married. During the next six decades the age of first marriage and sub-sequent parenthood continued to fall for both males and females. By 1950, the median age at first marriage was down to 22.8 for males and 20.3 for females. In the 1930s the Great Depression temporarily slowed the trend, but the postwar years saw a dramatic rise in early marriage and teen pregnancy rates. The 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s included the twentieth century's highest teen birth rates (respectively 79.5, 91.0, and 69.7 per thousand). By 1960, nearly one-third of American females had their first child before reaching age twenty.
The 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s reversed this trend. In the face of rising divorce rates, more college graduates, and reliable birth control, growing numbers of young people chose to delay marriage or not to marry at all. At the same time, the average age of menarche dropped to twelve, with some girls as young as eight experiencing menstruation. Many Americans ignored the rising age of marriage, and instead focused on changes in the incidence of unwed motherhood. By the 1990s, almost 25 percent of all babies were born to unmarried women. Teen mothers gave birth to only one-third of these infants, but the fact that black and Hispanic teens were more likely to have children outside of marriage than their white counterparts gained public attention. Furthermore, before 1970 the majority of unwed mothers gave up their babies for adoption. By the 1990s, nine of every ten teen mothers chose to keep their children and, at least for the immediate future, remain unmarried.
After 1970, rising concerns about teen pregnancy and parenthood became mixed with a variety of crucial social, economic, and political shifts. A new wave of immigration spurred by the 1965 Immigration Act increased American diversity. Changes in the nation's racial policies and practices grounded in the civil rights movement became part of federal law. Legal debates over access to abortion often centered on teens. Economic shifts fostered by the move from an industrial to a service- and information-based economy created new social problems. To many critics, unmarried teen mothers became symbols of American immorality and the growing Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) welfare program. As Hall had theorized decades earlier, teen pregnancy and parenthood, both inside and outside of marriage, seemed unacceptable and a modern social problem.
In 1996, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. This new law discontinued AFDC, included incentives for using implanted birth control, and placed restrictions on federal assistance to unwed teen mothers. To supporters, one of the keys to "changing welfare as we know it" was to end federal assistance to unwed teen mothers. Teen birth rates have continued to decline, but the reasons are not clear. It appears that young people, as they have done throughout American history, are making choices about parenthood for themselves.
Gordon, Linda. 1994. Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare. New York: Free Press.
Hall, G. Stanley. 1922 . Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion, and Education. 2 vols. New York: Appleton.
Lindenmeyer, Kriste. 2002. "For Adults Only: The Anti-Child Marriage Campaign and Its Legacy." In Politics and Progress: American Society and the State since 1865, ed. Andrew Kersten and Kriste Lindenmeyer. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Luker, Kristin. 1996. Dubious Conceptions: The Politics of Teen Pregnancy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Vinovskis, Maris A. 1988. An "Epidemic" of Adolescent Pregnancy? Some Historical and Policy Considerations. New York: Oxford University Press.