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The Teen Moms of Gloucester: What the Media Didn't Tell You

Teen pregnancy is nothing new. So what made the Gloucester girls such a big story?
 
 
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Gloucester, Massachusetts, a sleepy fishing town better known for cod than controversy, hit the headlines after seventeen teenage girls at the local high school became pregnant -- a fourfold increase over previous years. And it appeared that at least some of them did so intentionally. Reporters descended on the town desperate to get the scoop. Did the girls make some sort of secret pact to raise their babies together? Were they imitating Juno or other pop culture images of happy teenage moms? Was it the school's fault for offering too little sex education or too much child care for students' babies?

But few were asking the most basic question: Why is this such a big story? Put bluntly, because these girls are white.

Americans seem to have collective amnesia about the long history of white, "respectable" girls getting pregnant. Black, brown, immigrant and working class girls have long been the public face of teen pregnancy, thanks in no small part to Ronald Reagan's racist invocation of the "welfare queen." When these young women get pregnant, it is often framed as an economic problem: who will support these babies? When young white women get pregnant, however, it is the moral question -- not the bottom line -- that fuels the debate: Who will marry these girls?

It turns out that the only thing truly unprecedented about the Gloucester girls is the way they are answering -- or more accurately, not answering -- that very question. They don't seem to want to get married.

Teen pregnancy among the white "respectable" classes is nothing new. What is new is that the "lock" in "wedlock" seems to be sprung.

Historically, most pregnant young women hoped to marry the fathers of their babies. Among the New England colonists, unfairly given a bad name for their "puritanical" sexual repressiveness, unwed pregnancy was no big deal. The Puritans had a custom called "bundling," which allowed betrothed couples to sleep in the same bed before marriage as long as they kept their clothes on. They didn't. By 1800, nearly one third of all babies were conceived before a couple officially wed.

During the nineteenth century, many brides-to-be found every excuse to postpone the wedding day, aware that marriage and motherhood meant the end of freedom and the beginning of domestic burdens. But if passion got the best of them they hurried to the alter. For the seduced, betrayed, or unlucky pregnant woman with no husband on the horizon, redemption was possible but marriage unlikely. As historian Regina Kunzel notes, the "fallen women" of the nineteenth century became the "problem girls" of the twentieth.

One commentator proclaimed that "sex o'clock" had struck in America as the twentieth century dawned. When automobiles arrived in the 1920s, some called them "houses of prostitution on wheels." Historian Beth Bailey explains that courtship moved from the front porch to the back seat. By World War II, "problem girls" became "victory girls" who considered it patriotic to frolic with a soldier before he went off to war. Wedding bells often followed.

Although more traditional values returned at war's end, in the 1950s teenage pregnancy skyrocketed and the marriage age plummeted. Half of all brides were teenagers, and many were pregnant. If marriage was not possible, the unfortunate girl faced a dangerous illegal abortion, a hurried departure to a home for unwed mothers, or loss of her "reputation."

Whether consciously or not, the Gloucester girls are joining in a long, often hidden tradition of young women creating meaning for their lives through motherhood. What is exceptional about the Gloucester girls is not their youth, their numbers, nor that they want their babies (as many teen mothers do), but that these young mothers are having babies outside of the context of marriage. Initial reports indicated that some of the girls decided to get pregnant and raise their babies together. Although there is now some doubt about whether such a pact actually existed, there is evidence that some of them did agree to help each other raise their babies -- a whole new spin on the alternative family.

Faced with a half-changed world in terms of gender roles, and uncertain career prospects, the Gloucester girls have taken matters into their own wombs. With the economy in trouble, and half of marriages ending in divorce (many of them highly public and involving egregious infidelity), perhaps it is not so strange to imagine a satisfying future in one of the last romantic bonds -- that between a mother and her baby.

By stripping this promise from the ideal of a life-long mate, the Gloucester girls provoke some difficult questions on the changing shape of the American family and the meaning of motherhood. Do these young mothers embody the fulfillment of the feminist promise that girls can be whatever they want and don't need to rely on a man? Or is it evidence that the feminist promise is fading for girls who cannot see a meaningful future other than as mothers?

Young women emboldened to make important choices about their reproductive lives and family structure are hallmarks of a more egalitarian world. But when young women want to birth a baby before they've fully birthed themselves, the feminist dream is deferred. Rights, after all, are only as good as the opportunities that make them meaningful.

One thing is certain: these teen moms are neither "fallen women" nor "problem girls." They are doing what young women have been doing for centuries. The girls of Gloucester, however, are doing it on their own.

Elaine Tyler May is the author of Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era.

Courtney E. Martin is the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. You can read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

 
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