In Search of Fathers: Nara Milanich on the Historical Puzzle of Paternity

Who is a father? Is fatherhood a biological or social relationship? What are the cultural, economic, and political stakes of paternity? These are the questions Nara B. Milanich raises in the outset of her fascinating book, Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father.      

To answer them she delved into the century-long history of a seemingly straightforward source:   paternity science. What she discovered was anything but simple. As with all great historiographies, Milanich’s Paternity first teaches the reader to ask better questions. It finally convinces them that there are no uncomplicated answers.

Milanich traces tensions central to paternity’s meanings and consequences through illustrative case studies. Among others, chapters focus on silent film actor Charlie Chaplin’s 1940s paternity dispute, an adoptee’s protracted pursuit to establish his Aryan ancestry during the Nazi Regime, and a contested path to citizenship for three of the last Chinese immigrants detained at Ellis Island. These cases reveal how long-standing debates over nature versus nurture shaped definitions of paternity that privileged blood over social bonds, but only when it served the interests of those in power. 

Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father by Nara B. Milanich (Harvard University Press, 2019)

On one level, Paternity is a gripping history of science. Social historians interested in the ascent of purportedly scientific methods to determine every aspect of what makes us human—in this instance verifying those who made us—will be hooked by Milanich’s first mention of the oscillophore in Chapter 2. Developed in the 1920s by Dr. Albert Abrams, the oscillophore promised to confirm paternity by measuring the vibrations in blood samples, which ostensibly varied by race and ethnic origin. An absurd claim in hindsight, it presaged both the popularity of ABO blood-typing as the gold standard for paternity testing throughout most of the 20th century and the ubiquity of modern DNA testing to establish biological kinship. Our ability to identify paternal progenitors has come a long way since Abrams developed and marketed the first paternity test. Milanich smartly shows how the now undisputed idea that paternity is fixed and knowable originated in dubious scientific claims that fathers could be found in drops of blood.

On another level, Paternity is the telling of yet another set of political practices that reflected and reinforced deeply entrenched race and gender inequalities. As two seemingly fixed and essential biological facts, paternity and race were ever entwined in state efforts at racial governance. Ancestral definitions of race embedded in blood-based paternity testing delimited claims to national citizenship, social legitimacy, economic inheritance, family belonging, and personal identity. In the case of potentially “mixed-race” Jews during the Holocaust, a racialized and biological notion of paternity was literally a matter of life and death. Popular paternity tests based on comparisons of facial features and dental records also found their ideological roots in spurious and racist ideas that affinities between human bodies revealed incontrovertible truths about family trees. Milanich cleverly uncovers how both the means and ends of paternity testing throughout the 20th century only made sense because race “science” had paved the way for thinking about heritage in decidedly categorical and hierarchical ways.

The gendered implications of efforts to establish paternity were no less consequential. Other than a few exceptions when both mothers’ and fathers’ genetic links to children were in question, such as potential hospital baby swaps, the history of paternity testing is mostly a story of missions to identify unfaithful wives and cuckolded husbands. Long before Maury Povich turned public pronouncements of paternity into a staple of daytime television drama, the quest for fathers was an inquiry into women’s sexual morality and social propriety.

Family custom and law have almost universally defined fatherhood, with all attendant rights and responsibilities, vis-à-vis marriage. That is, a father is a mother’s husband. Paternity is a historical account of how and when fissures formed in this matrimonial definition of fatherhood. Many of the book’s case studies come down to the same basic question: Is the “real” father the one who contributed the sperm or the one who raised the child? With life-altering consequences for racial classification, claims to citizenship, child support policies, and so much more, the history of paternity testing reveals a constant conceptual battle between social and genetic understandings of parenthood and family. While Milanich is certainly not the first to write about this tension, the book is among the best I have read on the gendered assumptions underlying the contrast. As a biological and social relationship, maternity has always been taken for granted in ways paternity has not, hence one of marriage’s most consequential political, economic, and social functions: assigning fatherhood.   

In the end, Milanich convinces the reader that paternity has always been—and still is—much more political than scientific. The titular quest for the father is normative, not empirical. The book’s key takeaway is that the history of paternity testing has been less about finding fathers and more about how relationships of power shaped definitions of paternity that served some intentions and interests over others. Milanich’s greatest accomplishment with this book is not answering the question of whether different iterations of paternity testing worked to identify biological links between fathers and children. Readers will nevertheless likely become absorbed in accounts of the various methods—some legitimate, others decidedly less so—that scientists have used to trace paternal ancestry. How we have come to define the father rests on a related but distinct question, not who is the father, but rather, who do we want him to be? Milanich’s definitive history of paternity testing uncovers that it ultimately depended less on biology and more on who decided and the political and social stakes of the answer. 

Jennifer Randles is Chair and Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at California State University, Fresno. Her teaching and research focus on how gender, race, and class inequalities intersect to shape parenting and family policy in the United States. She is the author of Proposing Prosperity: Marriage Education Policy and Inequality in America and Essential Dads: The Inequalities and Politics of Fathering. Her next book, Diaper Dilemmas, traces the history of diapering and diaper need, the emergence of the U.S. diaper bank movement, and policy efforts to address inequitable access to diapers.