Jeb Bush In 1995: Unwed Mothers Should Be Publicly Shamed

06/09/2015 10:31 am ET | Updated Sep 08, 2015
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Public shaming would be an effective way to regulate the “irresponsible behavior” of unwed mothers, misbehaving teenagers and welfare recipients, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) argued in his 1995 book Profiles in Character.

In a chapter called "The Restoration of Shame,” the likely 2016 presidential candidate made the case that restoring the art of public humiliation could help prevent pregnancies “out of wedlock.”

One of the reasons more young women are giving birth out of wedlock and more young men are walking away from their paternal obligations is that there is no longer a stigma attached to this behavior, no reason to feel shame. Many of these young women and young men look around and see their friends engaged in the same irresponsible conduct. Their parents and neighbors have become ineffective at attaching some sense of ridicule to this behavior. There was a time when neighbors and communities would frown on out of wedlock births and when public condemnation was enough of a stimulus for one to be careful.

Bush points to Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, in which the main character is forced to wear a large red "A" for "adulterer" on her clothes to punish her for having an extramarital affair that produced a child, as an early model for his worldview. "Infamous shotgun weddings and Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter are reminders that public condemnation of irresponsible sexual behavior has strong historical roots,” Bush wrote.

As governor of Florida in 2001, Bush had the opportunity to test his theory on public shaming. He declined to veto a very controversial bill that required single mothers who did not know the identity of the father to publish their sexual histories in a newspaper before they could legally put their babies up for adoption. He later signed a repeal of the so-called "Scarlet Letter" law in 2003 after it was successfully challenged in court.

Bush's ideas about public shaming extended beyond unwed parents. He said American schools and the welfare system could use a healthy dose of shame as well. “For many, it is more shameful to work than to take public assistance -- that is how backward shame has become!” he wrote, adding that the juvenile criminal justice system also "seems to be lacking in humiliation."

In the context of present-day society we need to make kids feel shame before their friends rather than their family. The Miami Herald columnist Robert Steinback has a good idea. He suggests dressing these juveniles in frilly pink jumpsuits and making them sweep the streets of their own neighborhoods! Would these kids be so cavalier then?

It's worth pointing out that the kind of public shaming Bush described has come under fire recently in response to the growing trend of parents humiliating their children on social media to punish them. A 13-year-old girl died by suicide last month after her father posted a video of himself cutting off her long hair on YouTube because she had disobeyed him.

YouTube and social media, of course, did not exist when Bush wrote his book in 1995. But the former governor makes clear that "society needs to relearn the art of public and private disapproval and how to make those to engage in some undesirable behavior feel some sense of shame."

Bush did not respond to a request for comment.

UPDATE: 6/10 -- Steinback, the former Miami Herald columnist, told HuffPost that "until today, I was unaware that Governor Bush had cited my column on public shaming of juvenile criminal offenders in his 1995 book."

"My column made reference only to young offenders who often harbor a mistaken romance about jail and prison, and might consider incarceration a perverse badge of honor," he said. "I suggested that sentencing them to wear frilly pink jumpsuits and performing a public duty such as street sweeping in their own neighborhood might serve as more of a deterrent than jail time. I made no mention of using such a tactic with unwed pregnant teens. In fact, I would consider such a policy utterly horrific. Pregnancy is not and should never be treated as a crime. Unwed girls in such circumstances are most likely experiencing considerable personal and psychological stress and anxiety that would only be exacerbated by shaming them publicly."

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