Unmarried women have been giving birth to illegitimate children for centuries. Legitimacy issues in society have usually revolved more around the unmarried women who carry the children than the men that impregnate them. For centuries, men were not held responsible for impregnating women outside of adoption.
Many famous individuals throughout history were born to unmarried women and suffered as a result. Leonardo da Vinci and Alexander Hamilton both lacked legitimacy. Others suffered embarrassment and shame by giving birth without being married. Albert Einstein and his fiance had a daughter out of wedlock. Einstein’s fiance insisted that they maintain residences in separate cities to lessen the humiliation of having the child before getting married. Although they later had two sons, the daughter’s whereabouts remain unknown, although it is thought that she may have been given up for adoption.
Of all the laws that governed children born to unmarried women, England’s were the harshest. While other countries often allowed a child to gain legitimacy if the parents married, England did not. The laws governing illegitimate children in England considered the children to have no parents at all, regardless of whom claimed them. The laws were meant to shame the unmarried parents of the child by punishing the child.
These strict laws remained in practice until the mid 1920s. Even then, the reforms regarding a child’s legitimacy were scarce. In the 1920s, reforms for the laws governing these illegitimate children began slowly, giving children the right to become legitimate if their parents later married, as long as the parents could have legally married at the time of conception.
Legitimacy used to be a status coveted by those who did not have it. Now, many people do not give legitimacy any consideration since such a growing number of individuals are born to unmarried couples each year. Being unmarried while conceiving or having a child is now a matter or personal preference rather than a legal and social problem.