Legitimate This!

“It used to be called illegitimacy,” began last Sunday’s lead article in The New York Times, “Unwed Mothers Now a Majority in Births in 20’s.” Indeed, it did, until the Times Style Book and, now, the AP Stylebook got hold of it.

The phrase “illegitimate child,” according to the AP’s perhaps belated entry in its online version, is “stigmatizing, and unfairly so,” according to the Stylebook editor David Minthorn. Like those following The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (which made up its mind about the term in 1999), AP reporters are encouraged to replace the offending adjective with phrases like “whose parents were not married.” Now, I have inveighed elsewhere against those who argue that politically sensitive descriptors are too clumsy, but you have to admit, this one is a mouthful. Still, culturally attuned readers and listeners—like Sigmund Roos, parent of two adopted children, who weighed in on an NPR report last July that used the phrase “illegitimate children”—believe the adjective “implies a cultural value that no longer has any currency, and can be seen as insensitive—or even—offensive.”

Offensive to whom, exactly? Well, those taking umbrage believe the first victims are the children, to whom the descriptor “illegitimate” attaches as a core value, as it would, say, to an illegitimate argument. And certainly, if the term implies what Julie Drizin of the Journalism Center on Children and Families calls “something wrong with” a child born to unmarried parents, I for one find it unacceptable. The second group of victims would presumably be the mothers, like those whose children Sigmund Roos adopted. If “illegitimate” attaches to their pregnancies and the results thereof, we are employing notions of morality and sinfulness that scarcely apply in a society where more than 50 percent of women in their 20s give birth without being married.

But let’s look back at the examples in a fuller context, and at a different use of “illegitimate child” that these style guides don’t address. The articles using the phrase that offends Julie Drizin were discussing John Edwards, Jesse Jackson, Strom Thurmond, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The NPR broadcast concerned Prince Albert of Monaco. None of these men has been stigmatized for being born out of wedlock, nor are they being accused of giving birth at all, much less outside marriage. The stigma, if that’s what it is, attaches to these public figures as fathers, specifically as fathers who have not cemented their ties with their offspring through legal channels.

That is, after all, what the word means: not legal. A biological difference exists between men and women on this point. When the baby emerges from the mother’s body, you know it is (legally, in our time, unless she gives it up for adoption) her child. Not so for the father.  Almost all the discussions today regarding illegitimacy have to do with the rights and responsibilities of putative fathers and children. Illegitimate children, for instance, cannot inherit their father’s estate, presumably because the father has not conceded that these children are his and so such claims might be frivolous. Nor can an illegitimate child sue for the wrongful death of his or her father. Conversely, a man who swears he’s the father of a presumably illegitimate child cannot simply exert claims upon that child—cannot, for instance, demand custody or visitation rights willy-nilly.

Now, most states (my research here is spotty), allow for a process of legitimation—which can be effected by marriage to the child’s mother, but can also be effected by an oral or written acknowledgment of paternity, which has nothing to do with marriage. In these cases, the child “whose parents were not married” is a legitimate child—and yes, the difference matters, at least in a court of law and probably to the child’s (and perhaps the father’s) well-being.

I don’t have a solution for this snarl of language politics. I do, however, think we should be careful when we toss out valid and significant terms because they seem to us to convey a certain stigma that’s more open to interpretation than we realized. And speaking of stigmas, look back at that Times headline. The new online version reads “For Women under 30, Most Births Occur Outside Marriage.” I guess someone raised heck about the pejorative phrase “unwed mothers,” and I say good for them. That one’s got an easy replacement: “single.”


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