Monday, March 16, 2009

More disenfranchised grief

Clearly I'm a bit obsessed with disenfranchised grief right now, so I'm just going to keep on writing/thinking about it until I get it out of my system.

I’m currently reading Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race before Roe V. Wade by Rickie Solinger. Besides being a really thoughtful exploration of the differences in the experiences of white middle class versus black lower-class single mothers in post World War II America, the book spends a good deal of time examining the ways that white and black girlhood/womanhood itself was/is socially constructed, and the role that social service providers and the mental health industry played. All of these topics are dear to my feminist heart, of course, so I can’t believe I never read this book before (what with the mountain of dissertation-related and child-rearing related reading I already have…). So first, thanks Tori, for the recommendation!

Given my current obsession with disenfranchised grief, it’s not all that surprising that reading this book turns my thoughts to it once again. And it occurs to me that in spite of the very different experiences that unwed white and black mothers had, they both experienced disenfranchised grief over an unplanned pregnancy, but in very different ways. Most white unwed pregnant girls (of the middle and upper class) were not allowed to keep their babies, or even acknowledge their experience to the community. They had a duty to their families and their own futures to suck it up, keep their mouth shut, and cooperate as they were packed off to pregnancy homes in distant parts of the country to give birth and give the child up for adoption before returning to their lives with the expectation that they would act as if nothing had happened. They were generally diagnosed as having a number of neuroses during the pregnancy, from which complete compliance and a return to "respectable behavior" after the fact, would earn them a "cured" status. Given this cooperation, they could expect to return to school, and then continue on to marry and start a family of their own. Nobody acknowledged the grief they must have experienced over the loss of the child, or how it must have stayed with them through the years as they watched other children of a similar age grow and develop.

In contrast their black lower-class counterparts almost always kept the baby, dropped out of school, took on low paid, dead-end jobs, and sought the assistance of social programs. For them, girlhood was effectively over and their life ahead held a great deal of hard work. Add to that the social stigma of single motherhood, and the balancing act of maintaining their dignity while asking for help from case workers who looked down on them as both sex-crazed, irrational beings and shrewd, calculating people who were "working the system" in order to obtain public assistance funds all at the same time. It would have been impossible for a black single mother to have expressed grief over her situation, given the cultural view that she wantonly got herself into the situation to begin with.

So, both black and white single mothers experienced a great deal of disenfranchised grief, but in very different ways. The black teenage mother could cuddle her child, watch her grow, laugh at her antics, etc. But the price she paid was steep and severe. The white teen mother did not pay this price, and could continue her education and continue on to hold a privileged and respected place in society as a married mother. But the loss of the child was a pain she carried with her that she could never speak of or acknowledge.

It must have been a relief for both kinds of unwed mothers to stumble upon others in their same situation with whom they could share their experiences and talk about its impact on them. In both cases, this was probably hard to do. Black single mothers were generally overworked and exhausted just trying to keep up with their new lives. The time for sharing with girlfriends had largely come to an end. However, they were more likely to know other girls in their same situation than their white counterparts were. The silence and stigma surrounding unwed pregnancy in white communities made it highly unlikely that white girls would even know about other girls in their communities that had shared their experiences. In both cases, the isolation and lack of social understanding and sympathy no doubt made the experience much worse than it would have otherwise been. The ability to heal and move on is partially dependent on being able to grieve and be understood/empathized with. But when you transgress cultural conventions in such an extreme way, you are no longer viewed as deserving of empathy or a chance to grieve. And in this case, the lower down on the totem pole you are, the less of a right you have to grieve over the pain you’ve "brought upon yourself" by violating social norms.


  1. LetThemEatCake3/16/2009

    I think the topic of disenfranchised grief is so fascinating because it's a kind of guage for how socially acceptable something is. The more stigma there is attached to the event that caused your pain, the more likely that pain will be disenfranchised, making it even harder to deal with and move on.

    I had never heard of disenfranchised grief until your posts, but I can see why you're obsessed.

  2. I'm glad you're liking the book! I think Solinger's greatest quality as a writer and historian is her ability to bring an inherently feminist perspective to a thoughtful, well-balanced argument.

    I'm currently reading Abortion Wars, a collection of essays edited by Solinger that looks at the politics and use of abortion in the post-WWII era. If you get a chance, you should check that out too : )