The phrase “treat someone like a redheaded stepchild” is often used to indicate ostracizing or unfairly abusing a person. The origin of the phrase seems lost to history, but may have something to do with long-time cultural prejudices against both red haired people, and step or illegitimate children. “A redheaded stepchild” is often contextually used to describe a person that is seen as an embarrassment or a liability, or to describe a person or thing that is treated cruelly for reasons outside of its control.
Red hair has long been associated with a fiery disposition, but this is far from the only negative quality historically attributed to redheads. Some early cultures, including Ancient Greece, associated red hair with vampirism. Not surprisingly, red hair is often associated with blood; medieval Europeans believed that being born with red hair was a result of being conceived while a woman was menstruating, which was considered sinful and unclean.
The association of illicit sex resulting in red hair may be responsible for the literary concept of the redheaded stepchild. In modern usage, “stepchild” usually refers to the relationship between a new spouse and the children of his or her partner from a previous union. It is possible, however, that the term might once have included a broader definition of offspring, such as children born out of wedlock or those conceived through affairs. The idea of a stepchild can thus be linked with the illicit implications of red hair, possibly creating the impetus for the ostracization and abuse associated with the term “redheaded stepchild.”
Beyond the possibility of sinful conception, the motif of the redheaded stepchild may also draw its history from a long literary and historical tradition linking stepchildren or illegitimate children with a threat to inheritance lines. Particularly in noble circles, the presence of a stepchild or illegitimate child posed a severe threat to those due to inherit property, money, or even thrones. William Shakespeare made ample use of the image of the duplicitous illegitimate child in several of his plays, including with the character of Edmund the Bastard in King Lear, and John the Bastard in Much Ado About Nothing. Fairy tales featuring characters such as Snow White and Cinderella also stress the potential conflict between stepparents and stepchildren, by exploiting the fear that the children from a previous union will prevent heirs from a second union from inheriting.
Possibly the most famous redheaded stepchild in history is the flame-haired Queen Elizabeth I of England. Conceived shortly before the marriage of King Henry VIII and his mistress, Anne Boleyn, the future Queen Elizabeth suffered the mistrust of her people as a child, many of whom despised her mother. After the execution of Anne Boleyn, King Henry went so far as to declare Elizabeth illegitimate, removing her from the line of succession for many years. Elizabeth spent much of her youth completely ostracized by the English court, even being thrown in jail by her stepsister, Queen Mary, who feared that Elizabeth would try to steal the throne. It is a measure of pride to many modern redheads that Elizabeth survived her many trials to become one of England's greatest monarchs.