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Trends in Marital Status of U.S. Women at First Birth: 1930 to 1994

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Working Paper Number POP-WP020


This paper reports the general results of research under taken by Census Bureau Staff. The views expressed are attributable to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Census Bureau.





Premarital childbearing is on the rise not only among teenage women but also among older women. Data from June 1980 and 1995 Current Population Surveys were used to examine the trend in marital status of women at first birth. These trends in premarital childbearing were examined by age, race and Hispanic origin. About 53 percent of first births which occurred between 1990 and 1994 to women 15 to 29 years old were either born out-of-wedlock or conceived before the women's first marriage. About 60 years ago, only one of 6 births was born or conceived before marriage.


Premarital childbearing among women is on the rise not only among teenage women but also among older women. There is evidence that many young unmarried mothers and couples who marry as a result of premaritally conceived child experience considerable economic disadvantages. Meanwhile, the social stigma associated with being unmarried and having a baby has undergone changing levels of acceptance by members at various levels of society such as families, schools and organizations. Prenatal and postnatal classes offered to teenage women in schools, and the availability of federal welfare programs such as "Women, Infants and Children" which benefit many unwed mothers are a few examples which demonstrate society's concerns over out-of-wedlock childbearing and its effort to look at the issue from more than the viewpoint of a social stigma.


The purpose of this paper is to examine the trend from 1930 to 1994 in the marital status of U.S. women at the time of their first birth, using data from June 1980 and 1995 Current Population Surveys (CPS). Figure 1 present's data on the marital status of women at the conception of their first birth from 1930-34 to 1990-94. Three types of births are discussed: (1) premarital births--those births occurring to women before the mother's first marriage, (2) premaritally conceived births--those births occurring within seven months after the mother's first marriage; (3) post maritally conceived births--births occurring eight or more months after the mother's first marriage./1

The question "How many lives, if any, (have/has)...ever had" was asked of all women 15 to 65 years old in the June 1995 CPS, and of women 15 to 99 years old in the June 1980 survey. The children ever born include children born to women before her present marriage, children no longer living, and children away from home as well as children who were living in the home. It is possible that some never-married mothers living with one or more of their natural children reported themselves as having been married or may have failed to report the birth of children born out-of-wedlock. Prior research has shown that these data are probably less complete for births out of wedlock than for births within wedlock./2 The number of children ever born from zero to a terminal category of 20 or more was counted as 20.

For purposes of avoiding truncation of birth cohorts due to omission of older women through mortality or universe restrictions on age in the universe, the data were limited to first births occurring after 1930 and to women having their first birth before age 30. The trends shown in this paper may not necessarily match exactly those that would be obtained if fertility histories are available for all women who had ever lived during the period 1930-1994.


One in Two First Births in 1990-94 was Conceived before First Marriage.
Table 1 and Figure 1, show that 53 percent of first births between 1990 and 1994 to women 15 to 29 years old were either born out-of-wedlock (40 percent) or conceived before the woman's first marriage (13 percent). About 60 years ago, only one out six births (18 percent) was born or conceived before marriage.

In 1990-94, significant differences in the proportion of births either premaritally born or conceived are noted between White women (46 percent) and Black women (86 percent) (Table 2). Hispanic/3 women had an intermediate proportion of first births premaritally either born or conceived (55 percent).

About 89 percent of first births between 1990 and 1994 and teenagers were either born (75 percent) or conceived (14 percent) before the women's first marriage compared to 52 percent for women 20 to 24 years old, and 19 percent for women 25 to 29 years old (Table 3).

Decline in the Propensity to Marry before the First Birth
The statistic in the last column of Table 1 shows the propensity to marry before the birth of a premaritally conceived child. Increases in the proportion of premarital births may result not only from increases in the rate of premarital childbearing but also from declines in the propensity of couples to marry before the birth of a premaritally conceived child in order to avert an out-of-wedlock birth. It is observed that there has been a decline in the propensity of women with a premaritally conceived birth to marry since the 1930s, although there seems to be a halt in this decline during the 1990s (Figure 2). The major decline in this statistic occurred between the 1960s and 1980s during a time of great social changes among young persons in the U.S. Nowadays, both the parents of unmarried teenage mothers and the unmarried mothers themselves may question the gains of a forced marriage, especially if the father of the child may not be able to maintain the family or may divorce soon after the marriage.

Estimates prepared by Alan Guttmacher Institute indicate that about one-half of the abortions performed to women 15 to 44 years old in 1994-95 were to unmarried women/4. It is not known, however, what proportion of those unmarried women having an abortion would have married before the birth, in the absence of legal provisions for an abortion.

The declines in the proportion of women marrying before the birth of their premaritally conceived child may reflect the opinion of some women that they may be better off in the long run by relying more on the support of their parents and relatives for financial and emotional assistance than by entering a potentially unstable marriage undertaken solely to prevent an out-of-wedlock birth.

In general, the propensity to marry before the first birth is significantly less now than in the 1930s, regardless of age (Figure 3). Although a decline in this rate was noted among teenagers between 1985-89 and 1990-94, no such decline was noted for women 20 years old and over in this same period. It is possible that there may be changes in the attitudes of some older women who may be living with their partner and had planned to marry anyway, not just because the woman became pregnant.

Trends in Premarital Childbearing by Race and Hispanic Origin
For Black women under age 30, the percentage of first births either born or conceived before first marriage doubled from 43 percent during the 1930-34 period to 86 percent during 1990-94 (Table 2). In both periods, the majority of premaritally conceived first births to Black women were born out of wedlock. Only one in 10 Black women who had a premaritally conceived birth in 1990-94 was married by the time of the child's birth compared to one-quarter of these births in the 1930s (Figure 4).

The proportion of white women under age 30 who had either premarital or premaritally conceived first births tripled from a total of 15 percent in 1930-34 to 46 percent in 1990-94 (Table 2). This change was primarily the result of an increase in the premarital birth component of this statistic from six to 33 percent while the premaritally conceived birth component only increased from nine to 13 percent. A similar declining trend in the propensity to marry before the birth of a premaritally conceived child is noted among white women: about 61 percent married before the child's birth in the 1930s compared to 29 percent in the period 1990-94. The proportion of Black women marrying before the first birth was consistently less than that of their White counterparts for the entire 1930-34 to 1990-94 period (Figure 4).

The percent of first births either premaritally born or conceived by Hispanic women also increased from 30 percent in 1965-69 to 55 percent in 1990-94 (Table 2). In both periods, the majority of premaritally conceived births to Hispanics were born before the mother's first marriage. Twenty-eight percent of Hispanic women who had premaritally conceived first births in 1990-94 married before their child was born, a rate which was not statistically different from the proportion observed for non-Hispanic women (figure 5).

1 Data on premarital conceptions in this paper only refer to those conceptions ending in live births. Data on first conceptions ending in stillbirths, miscarriages or abortions are not available for these surveys.

2 Bachu, Amara, Fertility of American Women: June 1994, Current Population Reports, pp20-482, table E.

3 Women of Hispanic origin may be of any race.

4 Henshaw, Stanley and Kathryn Kost, "Abortion Patients in 1994-1995: Characteristics and Contraceptive Use," Family Planning Perspectives, 28:4, pp 140-147, table 1.

Page Last Revised - March 12, 2022
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