PITY poor little Dannielynn, just 5 months old and already the potentially multimillion-dollar prize in a paternity battle waged by three of the unsavory men who partied with her mother, Anna Nicole Smith, in the last years of her troubled and tawdry life. There’s an even creepier fourth potential candidate: Ms. Smith’s half-sister claims that Ms. Smith’s late husband, the nonagenarian billionaire J. Howard Marshall, left behind frozen sperm. And now Ms. Smith’s estranged mother has also rushed forward to claim custody of the baby. Could anything be worse for this little girl than to be at the center of such a media circus or to end up with one of these characters?
Actually, yes. For thousands of years, the future of a child born out of wedlock was of absolutely no interest to anyone, especially if she was an orphan. The only people likely to take her in were people who needed free labor on their farms or required a child “helper” small enough to run under dangerous factory machines piecing together broken threads or picking up dropped objects.
For 500 years, British law, on which American law was modeled, held that a child born to an unwed mother was a “filius nullius” — literally, a child of no one, entitled to support from no one. Little Dannielynn would not have had a right to her mother’s inheritance, much less a legal claim to receive support from the family of either her deceased mother or her father.
Until a little over a century ago, if an unwed mother died, her parents and siblings, not her child, had first claim to her property. If the child’s mother lived, she was often forced to abandon the child to ensure her own survival. For most of history, a woman’s sexual partner or estranged mother would never have fought for the right to raise a little Dannielynn.
Only for the last 100 years have European and American laws protected the right of children like Dannielynn to inherit from their mothers’ estates. It was not until 1968 that the child of an unmarried woman could collect on debts owed to her mother or sue for a mother’s wrongful death. And the right to inherit from an unwed father was not guaranteed until 1977.
When a young unmarried father, Sherman Gordon, was murdered in 1974, leaving no will, his daughter, who lived with him, got nothing. His possessions went instead to his parents and siblings, because Illinois law did not recognize the rights of illegitimate children.
The sordid details surrounding the battle over Dannielynn have led many people to wish that we could revive traditional family values and re-establish marriage as the central institution for organizing sexual relationships and child-rearing. But as usual, the lessons of history are more complex. The fact that Dannielynn has a right to inherit from either of her parents is the result of legal processes that have undermined the role of marriage in determining people’s economic and social rights. Surely this change is a welcome corrective to the injustice of traditional marriage laws and family values that stigmatized “bastards” for life.
It’s not as if the old laws of marriage and the old family values stopped people from engaging in sordid sexual liaisons; they merely swept the casualties under the rug. When the future President Grover Cleveland fathered an illegitimate child with a department store clerk, he arranged to have his son taken from her by force and adopted by another family. When the mother objected, Cleveland had her committed to an insane asylum. And the African-American mother of Strom Thurmond’s illegitimate child, a former maid in his parents’ house, never exposed Thurmond’s racist hypocrisy, but instead made do with whatever gifts he offered.
The Anna Nicole Smith story may be distasteful. But it hardly represents a more depraved morality than the “dignified silence” that surrounded deviations from the family values and marriage customs of the past.