Whatever it meant, it wasn’t good


“When are you going to make that baby legitimate?”

A few years ago my jaw dropped when an acquaintance asked her son’s girlfriend this question. This while the kid was standing right there. She was only 4, I realize she didn’t understand what her grandmother meant, but she knew it was something about her. And it was clear that, whatever it meant, it wasn’t good. There was something missing about her, something lacking. Something she needed to be that she wasn’t, and grandma didn’t approve.


Conforming to the law or to rules. Justify or make lawful. From medieval Latin legitimatus ‘made legal.’


Not authorized by the law; not in accordance with accepted standards or rules. Mid 16th century: from late Latin illegitimus (from in- ‘not’ + legitimus ‘lawful’).

Once upon a time, such children were labeled filius nullius – “child of no one.” They held no right to inherit property, and no right to any parental support. Even a subsequent marriage would not repair their status.

The words saw a usage spike in the mid-17th century. A review of parish registers in England show a corresponding increase in the rate of out of wedlock births at the time – going from virtually 0% to 3% over the century. And obviously drawing lots of attention.

(Interestingly, the word bastard sees the same spike in the 1600’s, but not in the 1960’s. The modern increase shows up in the 1970’s, where it’s used more to describe an unpleasant person than a child born out of wedlock. I’ll note here that some scholars trace the word “bastard” not to the medieval Latin bastardus, but to medieval German banstu, meaning to “tie with a socially inferior woman.” Hmmmph.)

After a sharp decline, use of legitimate/illegitimate begins a slow climb to a height in the early 1970’s as massive cultural shifts (sexual revolution, working outside the home) meant marriage became less necessary for women’s safety and financial stability. The percentage of births to unmarried women, 4.5% in 1955, hit 10.7% by 1970.

And the trend didn’t just happen in the the U.S.  “By 2014 in only five countries – Greece, Israel, Japan, South Korea and Turkey – were the proportions of births out of wedlock below 10 percent. In the large majority of more developed countries, including Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, more than one-third of all births take place out of wedlock. ” (Yale Global, Out-of-Wedlock Births Rise Nationwide)

By the late 1960’s the situation clearly needed to be addressed properly. A series of court decisions, beginning with Levy v. Louisiana, struck down most laws giving legitimate children more rights than illegitimate children. The Uniform Parentage Act was finally passed in 1973, and has been updated several times since as reproductive technology changed (surrogates, in vitro fertilization, etc.). Now children born out of wedlock can inherit, although paternal rights/responsibilities are still inconsistent from state to state.

Births out of wedlock finally flattened around 2008 at 40% and began a slow decline, sharpest among teens, black and Hispanic women. Studies attribute the drop to more widespread sex education, pregnancy prevention programs, and affordable contraceptive access (including long term methods like IUDs). So, more of this please! Some even connect the anxiety driven home by TV shows like Teen Mom and 16 & Pregnant.

Filius nullius. Not accepted.

Some turn to the Bible for justification.

Deuteronomy 23:2: “No one of illegitimate birth shall enter the assembly of the LORD; none of his descendants, even to the tenth generation, shall enter the assembly of the LORD.”

Judges 11:1-2: “Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valour, and he was the son of an harlot: and Gilead begat Jephthah. And Gilead’s wife bare him sons; and his wife’s sons grew up, and they thrust out Jephthah, and said unto him, Thou shalt not inherit in our father’s house; for thou art the son of a strange woman.”

Hosea 5:7: “They have dealt faithlessly with the Lord; for they have borne illegitimate children. Now the new moon shall devour them along with their fields.”

That little girl probably won’t remember what her grandmother said that day, but others hear those words and understand, and will remember. Still, in the 21st century, children are being labeled and judged for circumstances out of their control. As are their parents, who love their babies, and every day make the best choices they can for themselves and their families. Every child should be “legitimate.” We can try harder than this.

Interesting reading:

Legitimacy, Illegitimacy and Sovereignty in Shakespeare’s British Plays,” thesis submitted to the University of Manchester by Katie Pritchard, 2011

Mainstream Polygamy – The Non-Marital Child Paradox in the West,” by Dominique Legros, 2014

Births to unmarried women, statistics from the CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/unmarried-childbearing.htm

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