Death of the Redheaded Stepchild

Have you heard the expression getting “beaten like a redheaded stepchild?” There should be no doubt this expression has a clear and strong derogatory meaning. The negative stepchild reference is based on the idea the stepchild tends to be treated poorly when compared to biological children. You would punish a stepchild more severely than your other children because you care more for your own child. Remember the story of Cinderella? But why red heads? Why not blondes, brunettes or considering today’s hairstyles pink or purple?

Origin Theories of the Redheaded Stepchild


Redheaded children were the result of the 11th century Viking invasions of Britain and Ireland. In the course of raping and pillaging, the Vikings left behind a few red-headed children. The children’s red hair made them standout from the majority. Because of their Viking heritage, the redheaded children were subject to harsh treatment by parents and discrimination by the rest of the population.


The phrase “redheaded stepchild” actually started as “redheaded nigger.” It referred to the frequently redheaded mulatto (mixed race) slave children on plantations as a result of the slave owners having sex with the slaves.

Little Orphan Annie – A Redheaded Stepchild

The phrase originated with the musical Annie. The red-headed Annie would be beaten by her stepmother with a hairbrush.


The phrase “red-haired stepchild” originated in the early 1800’s when Irish emigrants began arriving in America. The newly arrived Irish ranked somewhere below free blacks on the social strata and lived in segregated communities. The prejudice against the Irish was so severe signs in front of restaurants, bars or hotels used to say, “No dogs or Irish”. As young men are sometimes prone to do, young Irish men were having premarital sex. This resulted in out-of-wedlock children with red Irish hair. When these young women did finally marry, usually to a young man not of Irish descent, the new husband was not particularly patient or sympathetic to the redheaded stepchild and treated them harshly.

Some Facts about Redheads

  • Throughout history, redheads have been mistrusted and maligned.
  • In ancient Egypt, red hair was seen as so unlucky, red-haired girls were burned alive.
  • In medieval Europe, the infamous witch-hunting manual, “Malleus Maleficarum,” instructed red hair, green eyes, and freckles were marks of a witch. This idea might have come from the general belief redheads were evil, wanton, and hot-tempered.
  • Redheads make up 4% of the European population.
  • Scotland has the highest percentage.
  • Ireland has the second highest percentage.
  • In the United States, redheads make up 2-6% of the population.
  • Largest population of redheads in the world: 6 -18 million.
  • Redheads have influenced history out of proportion to their numbers. Famous redheads include Roman emperor Nero, Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, the ancient god of love Aphrodite, Queen Elizabeth I, Napoleon Bonaparte, Oliver Cromwell, Emily Dickinson, Antonio Vivaldi, Thomas Jefferson, Vincent Van Gogh, Mark Twain, James Joyce, Winston Churchill, Malcolm X, Galileo, and King David.
  • Natural redheads have a higher pain threshold than others; they can withstand 25% more electric shock.
  • Red hair is a recessive trait. A child must inherit one red hair gene from each parent. Recessive traits often come in pairs; redheads are more likely than other people to be left-handed.
  • Red hair doesn’t gray as much as other hair colors. Red hair initially tends to turn blond and then white.

Final Thoughts

Initially, I was going to reveal the correct theory behind origination of the expression, but what difference would it make? Would it make using the expression less offensive and insulting? Expressions like these are based on false generalizations which are rooted in fear. They should have no place in our language. Having red hair is the result of genetics – no more, no less. To treat a child harshly because they aren’t biologically yours or they have red hair is also wrong. To continue to use the expression in any context perpetuates the lie.

Latoyia Bugtong

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