Secrets and Silences: Rhetorics of Unwed Pregnancy Since 1960

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Adams, Heather Brook
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
May 24, 2012
Committee Members:
  • Cheryl Jean Glenn, Dissertation Advisor
  • John L Selzer, Committee Member
  • Hester Maureen Blum, Committee Member
  • James Hogan, Committee Member
  • unwed pregnancy
  • rhetoric
  • Roe v Wade
Between 1945 and 1973, an estimated 1.5 million unwed pregnant women “went away” until after they delivered their babies. Given the limited historical recovery of these women’s stories, this project includes ethnographic interviews (with such women) and examines how the custom of “going away” during an era of hiding and surrender was maintained through practices of secrecy, shaming, and silence. The project also traces how the stigma of unwed pregnancy shaped public discussion as well as the spatial and bodily practices that determined where unwed, pregnant bodies were permitted to be and be seen during the 1960s and 1970s. Through this investigation, I overturn a central myth: that by the 1970s, unwed mothers no longer needed to hide their bodies, given a cultural climate of new sexual permissiveness, the development of the birth-control pill, and the decriminalization of abortion (with the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling). I contend that the “long 1970s” represents a decade that is critical to understanding how unwed pregnancy shifted from being a private, silenced, hidden problem to being a problem of public concern, garnering significant attention in popular discourse, public policy, and governmental legislation. Despite shifts in terminology (“unwed pregnancy” became “teen pregnancy” when the latter was deemed an “epidemic” in 1976), and despite the fact that unwed, pregnant bodies slowly became more visible, practices of shaming, silence and erasure continued through the 1970s. This project suggests that the history of unwed pregnancy since the 1960s is one that is ever constructed as a problem—whether a private, familial problem or one of greater public concern—but always a problem that lacks a sound solution. The legacy of such rhetorical constructions lingers today, as unwed and teen pregnancy discourses circulate widely (via television programming and film) and as political debate related to women’s knowledge of and control over their own sexuality and reproductive health has been revived, suggesting the relevance of the historiographic work this project undertakes. In sum, I use rhetorical and feminist historiographic lenses to examine when and how pregnant, unwed women (girls, most often) have historically been spoken for and/or silenced, and I position this project as an attempt to revisit history and speak with such women about how that history can most fully and ethically be remembered and understood.