Grossman on Thoroughly Modern Motherhood @SMULawSchool @SMULawReview

Joanna L. Grossman, Southern Methodist University School of Law, has published Thoroughly Modern Motherhood at 74 SMU Law Review 277 (2021). Here is the abstract.

As explored in Lawrence Friedman’s introductory essay in this Symposium issue, many a Victorian novel revolved around a simple reality: children born to unmarried mothers had “no name.” These children existed in reality, of course, but not in law. They had neither mothers nor fathers, as far as the law was concerned, even though they might have lived in a house being raised by the two people who gave them life. They did not inherit property from those adults, nor benefit from their social reputation. Quite the contrary—they represented a rejection of conventional social norms that resulted in the loss of respect from polite society. As a plot point, the birth of an illegitimate child could be and often was the basis for all sorts of intrigue -disrupted inheritance lines, secret affairs, bigamy, sibling rivalry, and so on.

Art imitates life—and law. The reason that a revelation of a bastard child could sustain an entire scintillating novel (scores of them, in fact) is that the plight resonated with readers who understood that the novel spoke the truth about the society in which they lived. But the simplicity of the plight—that a child born to an unmarried woman had “no name”— belies a complex set of interlocking legal and social norms that produced and reinforced that status. The fate of these children and their mothers was not an unfortunate side effect but rather the intended result of a system designed to confine sex to marriage—and to punish harshly those who transgressed the norm. The norm was maintained through several different legal doctrines, each carrying some of the weight of keeping unmarried pregnant women in their places. In this Essay, I will explore those intersecting doctrines first in their original form (and as the backdrop for Victorian novels) and then in their modern form, with an account of the changing social norms that led us from one place to the other.

Download the article from SSRN at the link.