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English professor publishes new book on shaming young mothers

“Embodying the Problem” is Professor Jenna Vinson’s latest release. (Katharine Webster/University Relations)

Jessica Kergo
Connector Staff

Assistant English Professor Jenna Vinson has published a decade’s worth of research work in her new book, “Embodying the Problem: The Persuasive Power of the Teen Mother.” The book examines the rhetoric that society uses to discuss teenage mothers and the rhetorical strategies these young mothers use to fight the stigma they face for having children at a young age. 

The term “teenage pregnancy wasn’t used until the 1970s,” said Vinson. She says Planned Parenthood’s use of the phrase to persuade the government of the need for contraception.  

“It was helpful, but it took a pathologizing view of young mothers and now we think it’s a problem. Once you control for the variables of a mother’s pregnancy, it doesn’t matter when she gets pregnant,” said Vinson. 

The book addresses an array of topics including race, poverty and reproductive justice, the idea that women should be seen as valid reproductive beings without regard to their age or current life situation. Vinson says she analyzes the root issues of society’s use of teen mothers as a scapegoat for other problems.  

“It continues this narrative that we can solve major social problems by controlling women,” said Vinson.  

She says that the role this notion plays on a larger scale, saying that, “it trains the public to continually scrutinize the sexual activity of women.” 

Driven in part by personal experience, Vinson elaborates upon the stigma she faced as a pregnant teenager in high school.  

“I have memories that my body seemed to communicate a message to people,” said Vinson. 

She reminisces about the rude comments she would receive from people in her classes and assumptions made by faculty members at her school. 

The idea to question the socially acceptable standard of shaming young mothers came about when Vinson herself was assigned a “social witness essay” during her undergraduate studies. She was prompted to write about a personally witnessed political issue when she started to examine the stigmatizing of young mothers.  

“I forgot that I was considered a social issue,” said Vinson.  

Both hurt and inspired by her own research, she continued to write about the issue while studying feminist rhetoric in Graduate school. Vinson studied the ways other women had written about the issue, ultimately using it as her dissertation and continuing her research ever since. 

Vinson says that although the book “very much derived from [her] personal experience,” she also practices “intersectional consciousness” throughout her writing.  

“Our experience is an intersection of the things that make us who we are,” said Vinson.  

She notes that the book is not solely her personal experiences, but a research-based analysis that includes an array of different stories.  

In the book, Vinson also studies Title IX violations made by schools toward pregnant students. 

“Are we sure that mothers drop out because they are pregnant? Or are the pushed out? We tell teenagers that if you get pregnant young and you struggle, its because you got pregnant young and its very misleading,” said Vinson.  

The book challenges the idea that shaming young mothers is an alternative to fixing the way they are treated.  

In addition, it also focuses on what it is like to embody a problem. Vinson coins the phrase “Embodied Exigence,” the rhetorical concept that one who represents an issue or subject is the one who should be speaking out about said it.  

“Listen to them, not what people have to say about them,” said Vinson. 

Vinson’s book analyzes how women can fight back in a rhetorically effective way.  

“Young women can use an ethos appeal as young mothers to change minds” said Vinson.  

She has used teenage parent advocacy campaigns like “No Teen Shame” to better understand how young mothers are challenging the stigmas they face. 

Professor Vinson advises students and emerging writers who aspire to challenge prejudice through writing that “language is powerful” and to take the time to self-reflect on why it is they want to write about the issue. She explained how throughout her research, she was often angered by the anecdotes she heard and used her anger as motivation.  

“I would get really mad and it would help me stay on task,” said Vison. 

As a faculty member at UMass Lowell, Vinson says she has developed a sense of what she feels could be done for student-parents on campus.  

“We have parenting on campus but it’s kind of in the dark,” said Vinson.  

The professor suggests a resource page on the university’s website that directs students to nearby daycares, information on class policy regarding children, and designated lactation spaces on campus. Vinson continues working with the issue as a co-advisor for the UMass Lowell Parenting Club and by running workshops to help people who work with young mothers.  

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