Far From ‘Tragic’: Author Jenna Vinson on the Misrepresentation of Young Mothers

"I hope my book—which brings attention to young mothers’ counter-stories and acts of resistance—makes feminist-oriented advocates and organizations think twice before circulating tragic tales of young motherhood."

Jenna Vinson, author of Embodying the Problem: The Persuasive Power of the Teenage Mother. Courtesy of Jenna Vinson

Jenna Vinson, a professor, author, and former teen mother, explained to me in a recent interview, “My critical thinking about Embodying the Problem began in high school as I seemingly embodied a problem as a 17-year-old pregnant girl on campus. Watching people examine my body, touch my body, comment on my body, and struggle to understand the seeming incongruities of my lived experience (Pregnant and at regular school? Mothering and in college? Pregnant, single, keeping the baby, and pro-choice?) made me consistently curious about why people reacted this way.”

Her new book, Embodying the Problem: The Persuasive Power of the Teenage Mother, seeks to answer the questions her 17-year-old self had. (As someone who has written extensively on teen parenting for Rewire and elsewhere, I was interviewed for the book, along with 32 other young women.)

An assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, Vinson’s work exists at the cross sections of feminism, motherhood, and teenage pregnancy. I recently spoke with Vinson via email about her book, how feminism can continue to fight for intersectional identities, and how teen parents are part of the fight, not the problem. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Rewire: How long have you been researching the intersection of feminism and pregnant and parenting teens?

Jenna Vinson: Over ten years! I began researching discourses about pregnant and parenting teens in graduate school.

Rewire: Why these two particular subgroups?

JV: I have been an advocate of feminism since I learned about the movement. It is a lens through which I view the world. I am always looking for the ways in which language or other meaning-making symbols perpetuate sexist oppression, and I see the very negative symbolic representations of pregnant and parenting teens as doing just that.

One of my other favorite definitions of feminism comes from Linda Alcoff, who writes in her book Visible Identities that feminism is a “nonfatalistic attitude toward ‘women’s lot in life.’” One of the most important things to understand—and challenge—is that the dominant narrative of teenage pregnancy prompts people to mistreat young pregnant and parenting people, to push them out of educational institutions they have every right to attend, and to make their lives harder because they supposedly deserve to feel the consequences of their “mistakes.” We should refuse this lot in life! I see this as a feminist refusal.

Rewire: How is teenage pregnancy and parenting a feminist issue?

JV: That’s a big question! One of my favorite feminist writers, bell hooks, explains in her book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center that feminism is “a movement to end sexist oppression” while being mindful of “the interrelatedness of sex, race, and class oppression.” A lot of the problems young pregnant and parenting people face are “feminist” issues, in that they are the results of sexist oppression as it intersects with racism and economic inequality.

As advocates of feminism often say, the personal is political. Women’s personal experiences are shaped by politics, economic structures, and social practices. Blaming individual pregnant and parenting teens, as much of the discourse around “teenage pregnancy” does, overlooks these political and social dynamics.

As someone who takes stories seriously, I also think that “teenage pregnancy and parenting,” as it is commonly represented, is a feminist issue. This narrative—which I call the dominant narrative of teenage pregnancy, a rhetorical practice of words and images that depict pregnancy as always and only the tragic downfall of a woman’s life—prompts people to readily accept the pejorative terms and inequitable realities feminists have contested.

Rewire: You researched not only the language of public service campaigns and public health publications, but also the images used to shape the language. What effects do the combination of language and images have on shaping public perceptions about pregnant and parenting teens?

JV: I found that the images used in teenage pregnancy prevention campaigns and news articles about teenage pregnancy/motherhood consistently bring attention to women’s bodies, even if the language around the image is gender-neutral.

From my research of newspaper and news magazine articles from the 1970s to the 1980s—the period when many scholars agree that teenage pregnancy was first being argued to be a contributor to poverty and a cause for national concern—I found that images of young mothers were especially important for persuading the public to see “teenage mothers” as a coherent category of problem people. Yet, there were differences in how young mothers were represented depending on their apparent race.

I found a pattern of news publications using a photograph of an individual white young mother to represent the issue of “teenage pregnancy” or “high school pregnancy” at large. Photographs of women of color were also used, but not as cover images.

Often, photographs featuring young mothers of color included multiple mothers of color and/or mothers with multiple children. In the book, I argue that this racialized distinction in representation fueled racist stereotypes about women of color having too many children and damaging the economy (think: welfare queen stereotype) while distinguishing discourse about preventing “teen” pregnancy from the racist anxieties and practices being critiqued at the time (like unjustly sterilizing low-income women of color).

Rewire: It seems that popular social and political narratives about pregnant and parenting teens have set an almost-hostile cultural environment for pregnant and parenting teens. Does feminism, at large, feed into the negative stereotypes about pregnant and parenting teens?

JV: First, I will say go ahead and call it hostile. At least what I have learned from talking to young pregnant and parenting women and reading their stories over the last decade is that many face hostility from family, friends, teachers, administrators, nurses, social workers, judges … you name it!

I think some feminist-oriented organizations and advocates have, perhaps unwittingly, contributed to the dominant narrative of teenage pregnancy. I was surprised to learn, from reading Kristin Luker’s book, Dubious Conceptions, and Constance Nathanson’s book, Dangerous Passage, that the dominant narrative of teenage pregnancy was initially crafted by family planning advocates who were trying to get young people better access to contraceptives and abortion procedures.

Some scholars, like Nathanson, say that teenage pregnancy has been a tricky topic for mainstream feminism to address, but I wouldn’t want to say that feminism, at large, feeds into negative stereotypes about pregnant and parenting teens. Doing so would overlook the critical work of women of color feminists who have agitated for reproductive justice, welfare reform, and an end to punitive politics for pregnant women of color. I am thinking of the work of Angela Davis, Dorothy Roberts, Patricia Hill Collins, and Loretta Ross. While these scholars and activists might not focus solely on “teenage pregnancy” as a site for critical analysis, they do bring attention to how stereotypes about “teenage mothers” fit into a long line of racist tropes justifying the coercive or punitive treatment of women of color and racist ideology explaining the disenfranchisement of people of color through their supposedly careless or immoral behavior.

Rewire: In what ways—if any—does feminism use these harmful narratives about pregnant and parenting teens, and what can they do to stop this?

JV: I think people who advocate for feminism need to stop using the story of the struggling or doomed young mother to argue for comprehensive sex education, access to contraception, continued access to abortion procedures, and programmatic resources for youth. As a rhetorician who understands that one must appeal to their target audience’s values and concerns in order to convince them to do something, I get why people who care about youth have done this in the past. But I hope my book—which brings attention to young mothers’ counter-stories and acts of resistance that demonstrate the damaging consequences of this kind of story—makes feminist-oriented advocates and organizations think twice before circulating tragic tales of young motherhood. I conclude the book by promoting reproductive justice as a framework that allows us to call for resources and social change without pathologizing young parents.

I do think mainstream feminism is paying more attention to the plight of young pregnant and parenting teens now than before. For example, I learned from my case study of the 2013 formation of the #NoTeenShame movement that organizations like Planned Parenthood New York and the National Women’s Law Center, as well as publications, like Ms. Magazine, participated in the critique of entities that stigmatize young pregnancy and parenthood. This is promising!

As I write in the book, “Collaboration with allies is also crucial to the publication and circulation of young mothers’ counter-narratives.”