We are independent & ad-supported. We may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.

Advertiser Disclosure

Our website is an independent, advertising-supported platform. We provide our content free of charge to our readers, and to keep it that way, we rely on revenue generated through advertisements and affiliate partnerships. This means that when you click on certain links on our site and make a purchase, we may earn a commission. Learn more.

How We Make Money

We sustain our operations through affiliate commissions and advertising. If you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, we may receive a commission from the merchant at no additional cost to you. We also display advertisements on our website, which help generate revenue to support our work and keep our content free for readers. Our editorial team operates independently from our advertising and affiliate partnerships to ensure that our content remains unbiased and focused on providing you with the best information and recommendations based on thorough research and honest evaluations. To remain transparent, we’ve provided a list of our current affiliate partners here.

What Is a Redheaded Stepchild?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 16, 2024
Our promise to you
WiseGEEK is dedicated to creating trustworthy, high-quality content that always prioritizes transparency, integrity, and inclusivity above all else. Our ensure that our content creation and review process includes rigorous fact-checking, evidence-based, and continual updates to ensure accuracy and reliability.

Our Promise to you

Founded in 2002, our company has been a trusted resource for readers seeking informative and engaging content. Our dedication to quality remains unwavering—and will never change. We follow a strict editorial policy, ensuring that our content is authored by highly qualified professionals and edited by subject matter experts. This guarantees that everything we publish is objective, accurate, and trustworthy.

Over the years, we've refined our approach to cover a wide range of topics, providing readers with reliable and practical advice to enhance their knowledge and skills. That's why millions of readers turn to us each year. Join us in celebrating the joy of learning, guided by standards you can trust.

Editorial Standards

At WiseGEEK, we are committed to creating content that you can trust. Our editorial process is designed to ensure that every piece of content we publish is accurate, reliable, and informative.

Our team of experienced writers and editors follows a strict set of guidelines to ensure the highest quality content. We conduct thorough research, fact-check all information, and rely on credible sources to back up our claims. Our content is reviewed by subject matter experts to ensure accuracy and clarity.

We believe in transparency and maintain editorial independence from our advertisers. Our team does not receive direct compensation from advertisers, allowing us to create unbiased content that prioritizes your interests.

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.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for WiseGEEK. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

Discussion Comments

By anon989310 — On Mar 01, 2015

Yes, it is cruel but why would people such as the ones you mention be the kind of people I'd want to be friends with to begin with. I don't like cliques. The herd mentality is a sad thing. I always had friends in school but we were all independent also.

By anon355643 — On Nov 18, 2013

i believe that to black ball someone is cruel. It takes away part of their life. Other ways of thinking of this subject is to say, a whole group of people do not forgive. Very sad! But if your life has been turned over to Jesus Christ, it may work to your benefit. You can think differently, go after knowledge, be kind to everyone. turn the whole situation around and be thankful.

They are a clique, and you are independent. Sometimes I get sad, but there are a lot of people in this world who would love to just enjoy your company, like in senior centers.

Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
Read more
WiseGEEK, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.

WiseGEEK, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.