The Paternity Reveal

For most of history, one essential, immutable difference between men and women was that men could hide the fact that they had created a child and women could not. Pregnancy and childbirth showed the world who the mother was; paternity could only be assumed. Years ago, I saw a female standup do a routine in which she swaggered across the stage like a dude, telling the audience, “Yeah, I don’t have any kids”—pause—“that I know of.” It still makes me laugh. New parents are often told how much their babies look like their father. The research on whether most do or do not is ambiguous, but the fancy persists, in part because, consciously or unconsciously, people think that emphasizing the resemblance will set a man’s mind at ease, thus fortifying the paternal bond. As Nara Milanich, a professor of history at Barnard College, writes in her solidly researched and enlightening new book, “Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father” (Harvard), a “common metaphor invoked by nineteenth-century jurists was that Nature had concealed fatherhood by an ‘impenetrable veil.’ ”

That veil was often a source of frustration, leading to domestic doubts and irresolvable courtroom conflicts. Literature gives us many a husband driven half mad by the suspicion that his child is not the fruit of his loins, as is King Leontes, in “The Winter’s Tale,” and women who deceive their husbands on this score, like the wife in Maupassant’s story “Useless Beauty,” who tells her husband that one of their seven children isn’t his, but won’t say which.

Paternal unknowability, however, was also enormously useful. Many legal traditions around the world, including the Anglo-American one, adhered to the marital presumption of legitimacy at least until the twentieth century: a child born to a married woman was considered to be the biological progeny of her husband. (A child born to an unmarried woman was, Milanich writes, “historically deemed a filius nullius, a child of nobody.”) Milanich tells the story of a man named Remo Cipolli, who, in 1945, sued his wife, Quinta Orsini, for adultery, and sought to deny paternity, after she gave birth to an infant who appeared to be black. Cipolli and his wife, who were both white Italians, lived in a small town near Pisa, where a number of African-American soldiers had been stationed at the end of the Second World War. The case became notorious—the baby was known as “the little Moor of Pisa.” In the end, although a civil court found Orsini guilty of adultery, it also concluded that her husband, Cipolli, was legally the baby’s father.

The marital presumption might not have been fair to some individual men, but it did help uphold the patriarchal family. Orsini’s conviction for adultery aside, the presumption denied the possibility that wives might have sex outside their marriage—the husband was the father of any children born to his wife, because who else would be?

Under the systems of slavery and colonialism, the opacity of paternity came in particularly handy. An enslaved woman living in the antebellum South could never have demanded proof of paternity for a child sired by a white owner, but, in any case, there was no means of obtaining such proof. Some of Thomas Jefferson’s descendants continued to deny that he had fathered children by the slave Sally Hemings, until, and even after, DNA tests conducted in 1998 confirmed the genetic link. “The law of slavery erased the father to the benefit of masters, their white kin, and the system of bondage generally,” Milanich writes. In 1912, when France ended a century-old ban on paternity suits brought by unmarried women, the new law did not apply in French colonies.

Margaret Talbot (JUNE 24, 2019). The Paternity Reveals [Blog post]. Retrieved from