Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program


Author's Department/Program



English (en)

Date of Award

Summer 9-1-2013

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Mary Ann Dzuback


Public school districts in the United States expelled pregnant girls with impunity until the early 1970s. Although school districts were legally permitted to exclude pregnant girls, urban districts began experimenting with special programs for these girls in the 1960s. Scholarship on adolescent pregnancy and unwed motherhood makes brief mention of pregnancy schools, but little is known about why and to what ends urban school officials instituted these programs. Even less is known about pregnant girls' standing as students at midcentury and beyond, the mechanisms by which these girls were barred from school, or the pressures that ultimately motivated school officials to recognize pregnant girls' right to public education in regular classrooms. This study addresses these gaps in the literature by examining policies, practices, and programs targeting pregnant girls in the Washington, D.C. and Chicago public schools in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. Theories of gender, intersectionality, and schools as sites of social reproduction guide the analysis.

Archival research revealed that the systematic exclusion of pregnant girls from the public schools in Washington, D.C. and Chicago reflected backstage rules and informal understandings about who merited an education and who did not. Upon their removal from school, pregnant girls in both cities confronted maternity homes and private-sector arrangements that served the needs of White middle-class girls and women to the near exclusion of all others. Thus, when school officials joined forces with their counterparts in the fields of public health and social welfare to establish pregnancy schools in the 1960s, their aim was to make medical, mental health, and social services available to poor Black pregnant girls for whom such services were severely lacking. Ensuring that excluded pregnant girls received uninterrupted academic instruction was a second-order consideration. In the 1970s, when the boards of education in both cities adopted policies allowing pregnant girls to remain in the regular schools, they did so in response to local pressures, some of which were only peripherally related to schoolgirl pregnancy. This finding calls into question the existing scholarly narrative linking pregnant girls' entrance into American public schools withOrdway v. Hargravesand Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

The central argument advanced in the study is that, throughout the time period of interest, school officials defined pregnant girls as expectant mothers whose reproductive status took precedence over their rights and responsibilities as students. Through restrictions imposed on pregnant girls, school officials reproduced a vision of femininity in which women's roles in the home and family trumped their pursuits in the public sphere. Moreover, the development of special schools for poor Black pregnant girls in both urban districts in the 1960s reinforced and perpetuated, rather than challenged, the widely circulated idea that Black unwed mothers differed from their White counterparts. By isolating poor Black pregnant girls in separate and unequal programs, school officials shored up the broader ideological distinction between White womanhood and Black womanhood, a distinction that has figured prominently in the articulation of race and racial difference in the United States.


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