Millions of stepmothers exist the world over. While it is difficult to quantify just how many stepmothers exist, the Pew Research Center estimates there are over 14 million in the U.S. alone. Are you one of the more than 14 million wicked stepmothers? After all, it seems that the connotations surrounding the word stepmother are mostly negative. But was the term founded with a derogatory meaning? Where did the term originate?
It appears that the terms associated with both stepmother and stepfather predate the year 900 A.D. and nowhere was there an indication that the term was a negative one. From it’s earliest recorded use, the term associated with stepmother (from the prefix, “steop”) denoted a connection resulting from the remarriage of a widowed parent. In essence, the terms were associated with orphans—those no longer having either a biological mother, or father, or both. Yet, throughout the hundreds of years since, stepmothers have been associated with wickedness, greediness, selfishness and the incapacity to love another’s children.
History itself has not helped stepmoms’ plight. Heard of Elfrida, the Queen of England? Her husband Edgar the Peaceful died in 975 A.D. leaving two sons, one by each of two wives. After Edgar’s death, his eldest son and Elfrida’s stepson, Edward, ascended the throne. But not for long. Wishing to see her own son on the throne, stepmother Elfrida hatched a plot to kill the young king. As her 16-year-old stepson entered her home, she allegedly handed him a drink and as he drank, one of Elfrida’s attendants stabbed him. He escaped Elfrida’s house but later died on the road to meet his companions.
One of the first instances of the wicked stepmother idea in print was authored by John Gamble in the 1826 story, “An Irish Wake.” He writes of a woman on the verge of death, who instructs her successor to "be kind to my children." Gamble writes that the injunction was forgotten and that she "proved a very step-mother."
In several Thomas Jefferson biographies it is noted that the reason Jefferson never remarried after the death of his beloved wife Martha was due to her own admonishment. She feared that her children would receive the same treatment that she had suffered at the hands of her own stepmother.
And who can imagine life without all of the childhood fairy tale stepmothers? Whether it was Cinderella, Snow White or Hansel and Gretel, we knew that the evil stepmother would come to bear upon the sweet, precious children of an uninvolved, or worse, heartless, father.
Despite all of the attempts to continue to invalidate and undermine stepmothers, I do think that we’ve come a long way, baby. The Brady Bunch (1970’s) and Step by Step (1990’s) were generational network sitcoms featuring blended families. More recently, Nickelodean’s Drake and Josh and Disney’s Phineas and Ferb provide more realistic fare in terms of stepfamily life. And while not all stepfamily issues can be recognized and resolved within a 30 minute time span, at least the stepmothers involved in these tales are not poisoning or sacrificing their stepchildren for their own personal good.
In addition to the television rebirth of stepmothers, the prevalence of divorce and remarriage has created a society full of stepparents. Stepfamily education is widespread and involves ways to better enhance the stepfamily environment rather than harkening back to the ages of the wicked stepmother notion.
No matter that we’ve been harangued throughout the centuries. Stepmothers today have decided not to believe their own bad press. We are working overtime to turn the tide and show that stepmothers can be open, loving women bringing peace and value into their stepchildren’s lives. Perhaps, in the not too distant future, the wicked stepmother will be ancient history.