In the '90s, TV sitcom character Murphy Brown became a single mom and the country went nuts--or at least then vice-president Dan Quayle did, condemning the show for glorifying out-of-wedlock births. In Vietnam around the same time, attitudes toward single motherhood were oddly more accepting, as Seattle anthropologist Harriet Phinney discovered. She's poised to write a book about the subject, and has already gotten some advance publicity from The New York Times.
Talking with Seattle Weekly, she explains that she went to Vietnam intending to research something else entirely: reproductive health. "Everyone I talked to said, 'yeah, well, fine, but have you heard about these women who have asked for a child?' "
So she started looking into it. These were women, she learned, that had made their decision in the years following what is known in Vietnam as the American War. They had contributed to the war effort in various ways only to find that afterward they were considered too old to be eligible. In any case, given the casualties of the war, there weren't enough men to go around.
Or at least enough men that the women considered to be husband material. Phinney said she asked these women why these didn't marry some of the older men who had escaped the war. They explained they didn't love the men, and pointed to an interesting law passed by the ruling communists that outlawed marriages not based on love (a law aimed at ending arranged marriages).
As radical as it was for these women to become single moms, the way the government reacted to them may have been even more radical, as Phinney tells the tale. Instead of condemning these women, à la Dan Quayle, the government passed a law recognizing every woman's right to have a child. In other words, Phinney says, the government decreed that these women and their children "should be treated equally."
After delving into the subject for her dissertation, Phinney recently decided to return to the subject for a book. She is planning a trip back to Vietnam this summer or fall, when she hopes to reconnect with the 25 women she initially interviewed, as well as their children, to find out how things are going for them now.
And she wants to examine attitudes toward single motherhood in modern Vietnam. Her question: "Have they created a space for women to ask for children out of wedlock?" Or, she wonders, was the empowerment once offered to single moms a product of another, post-war era?