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  Chapter Four:

  Marriage Rate and Age
  Premarital Sex
  Cohabiting Couples
  Extramarital Sex
  Attitudes about Sex
  Married Couples
  Married Women
  Nonmarital Births
  Parent-Child Contact



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Nonmarital Births

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Births to unmarried women increased sharply after 1960.
What used to be known as illegitimate births in the first half of the century came to be called out-of-wedlock or nonmarital births during the second half. This evolution in terminology mirrored a massive change in social and legal norms: sanctions were no longer imposed on unmarried women who bore children, and the ancient stigma of bastardy was no longer recognized by law or public opinion. 

Nonmarital births were always more common among black Americans than among whites, but as recently as 1950, the great majority—83 percent—of black mothers were married, with a husband present. The trend in the second half of the century changed significantly. Less than a quarter of black infants were born to unmarried mothers in 1960, but the comparable figure for 1997 was 69 percent. 

The rise in white nonmarital births was even more startling because there was little history of even partial tolerance in this sector of the population. Until the 1960s, young women who became pregnant outside of marriage were encouraged to stay in special institutions and give up their infants for adoption. Before the advent of reliable contraception and legal abortion, any nonmarital pregnancy was considered unintended and unwanted. 

This began to change in the 1960s, when intentional childbearing by unmarried women came to be tolerated, if not fully approved. By 1997, 26 percent of white infants were born to unmarried mothers, up from only 2 percent in 1960. The parents of a considerable number of these infants eventually married. 

In the 1990s, the rate of pregnancy among teenagers declined significantly, particularly among blacks. From 1991 to 1997, the birth rate among women aged fifteen to nineteen declined 15 percent. This trend may well presage a decline in nonmarital births.

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Source Notes
Source Abbreviations

HS series A 26, A 27, B 9, and B10; SA 1997, table 97; and SA 1999, table 100. See also Ross Gregory, Modern America, 1914–1945 (New York: Facts on File, 1995), page 159. See the Internet archives of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on out-of-wedlock births, at (accessed September 20, 2000). For an overview of premarital childbearing, see Amara Bacu, “Trends in Premarital Childbearing,” Current Population Reports P23-197 (October 1999).


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