Social Workers and the Creation of the Pathological Unwed Mother


A review of A Certain Kind of Girl: Social Workers and the Creation of the Pathological Unwed Mother, 1918-1940, by Cara Kinzelman

Cara Kinzelman begins her dissertation with a series of contemporary news stories illustrating that “unwed motherhood is still a controversial action” (p. 2). Indeed, conservatives have latched onto the fact that most Americans see the rising number of single mothers in America as a problem. Many believe that the decision to have a child out of wedlock creates economic and developmental hurdles for those children. The state must then step in, on behalf of the children. This logic has political ramifications. The Republican Party’s argument that governmental programs are encouraging the rise in unwed motherhood is one upon which both its social conservative and its libertarian factions can agree. While House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s plan to place the children of welfare recipients in orphanages failed in the 1990s, proposals to fold “marriage promotion” into welfare programs have succeeded. Kinzelman’s dissertation attempts to establish the roots of these arguments about unwed mothers in the growth and professionalization of the social work community during the interwar period.

A Certain Kind of Girl argues that there is a causal relationship between the rise of and changes in “scientific studies of illegitimacy” within the social work community and the creation of “unwed motherhood as a pathology”(p. 4). In order to establish social work as a profession, social workers had to follow changing scientific understandings of the family. This professionalization was enabled and limited by social work’s bureaucratic and economic ties to government.

Kinzelman begins with a case study of the Minnesota Plan, passed in 1917, which established a political and economic framework for state-directed social work. Though the plan was initially a Minnesota venture, Kinzelman notes that a number of states enacted similar pieces of legislation in the following years. Promoted by the child welfare movement, these initiatives also established a focus on the welfare of children rather than mothers or families. In later years, Kinzelman argues that this focus would “[enable] the eventual creation of social policies that would demand adoption in all cases of illegitimacy” (p. 75).

The remainder of Kinzelman’s study is divided into two major sections, each section bookended by case study vignettes that serve to illustrate the flaws in social work research as it moved from sociological to psychological analyses of the unwed mother. Chapters 3 and 4 examine the period in which social workers and social scientists understood unwed motherhood as a product of social and economic forces, a symptom of urbanization and industrialization. Though this Progressive-era approach to unwed motherhood often reduced women to class-based stereotypes, experts generally concluded that mothers could and should retain custody of their children. This solution was supposed to be not only less costly, but would also prevent unwed mothers from producing more children.

Chapters 5 and 6 covers the transition to and repercussions of social work’s turn towards psychology as a method of understanding unwed motherhood and its effects on children. In applying contemporary theories of psychology to unwed mothers and their children, social workers came to believe that birthing children out of wedlock was the result of pathologies that could not really be treated and that would prevent unwed mothers from raising their children properly. This new approach to unwed motherhood coincided with the commodification of adoption. As a result, social workers shifted towards recommending adoption as the only reasonable, humane solution for children born to unwed mothers.

Through the course of the dissertation, readers meet a variety of biologists, social scientists, and psychologists who shaped popular as well as scientific understandings of unwed motherhood and the effects of single mothers on their children. Social work researchers consistently looked for and emphasized commonalities between the experiences and problems of unwed mothers. This search for patterns was born of a desire to identify the causes of, and preventing women from, becoming unwed mothers and burdens upon the state. Kinzelman argues convincingly that these goals made it impossible to conduct objective studies or to develop conclusions that would benefit unwed mothers and their children. Instead, these supposedly scientific inquiries confirmed prejudices already held by researchers and were heavily structured by the economic needs of the government.

The dissertation converses primarily with other historical studies of social work. The primary source material is largely drawn from dissertations, theses, and governmental studies, alongside case files from social work institutions in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Focused on doing close readings of these studies, Kinzelman’s dissertation reveals a number of avenues for further research. For instance, A Certain Kind of Girl raises questions about the economics of state attempts to control the structure and inner workings of familial life. Further, there are ample research opportunities for scholars interested in exploring the relationship between the histories of social work and adoption. New studies might explore these tensions between the need to control female sexuality and the need to keep costs to the taxpayer low.

A Certain Kind of Girl gives readers a unique window into the lives of unwed mothers attempting to balance the economic, emotional, and societal demands of work and new familial life. Though these stories are filtered through the perspectives of social workers themselves, as Kinzelman notes (pp. 143-44), the variety of stories scattered throughout the study are detailed and illuminative. By the end of the dissertation, it is clear that unwed mothers have never been a uniform group with an easily simplified set of needs and desires, either for themselves or their children. It is also clear that the state gradually allowed psychologized understandings of unwed motherhood to overshadow dealing with the very real problem of how to give these women stable economic foundations for raising their children.

Rachel Pierce
Department of History
University of Virginia

Primary Sources
Records from social work institutions in Minnesota and Wisconsin (e.g. the Sauk Centre Home School for Girls, and the Wisconsin Industrial Home for Women)
The Minneapolis Morning Tribune
The Pittsburgh Courier
A variety of governmental and academic studies of unwed motherhood

Dissertation Information
University of Minnesota. 2013. 374 pp. Advisor: Dr. Jennifer Gunn.

Image: Poster for the film Unwed Mother (1958), Allied Artists.

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