Growing Stigma around Unmarried Motherhood

Having a child out of wedlock was not always looked upon so poorly, it is only as social, moral, and economic attitudes changed that women who found themselves unmarried and pregnant became stigmatized. To understand how the mid-1960s came to become the peak period for adoption in the UK (as well as other countries), and the stigma that drove this apex of adoption, we must first understand a bit of the history affecting attitudes towards illegitimacy. It is my intent of this blog to be as approachable and ‘un-academic’ in my writing as possible, so if I fail in that charge today please bear with me and continue reading this post as well as my future writings on the subject. It is hard to give an historical overview of most anything without becoming a tad pedantic.

To begin, we must look to a time when illegitimacy was not necessarily stigmatized, and for that we can thank agrarian communities which predated the industrialized, capitalist economies which thrive today. Medieval Britain, according to Pinchbeck (1954) did not view illegitimacy as a problem, as the children were absorbed into the mother’s own community and contributed to the labor necessary to support the community. The only disadvantage to the illegitimate child (which, fair enough, could be considerable in some situations) was their inability to inherit. However, with the growing practice of primogeniture, where only the eldest child inherits, this disadvantage was shared with any child who was not a first born.

Birth in the Middle Ages

Birth in the Middle Ages

It was industrialism, the growth of capitalism, and the ethics of sixteenth-century Puritanism that changed this. Illegitimate children who may once have been an asset in a labour-based economy would grow to become a liability if they could not find paid employment in the factories of later years. Rearing children became an expense, rather than a benefit to the family’s upkeep. This reduced the desire to care for children not of one’s own family, and caused an overall reduction in family size. Unmarried women who could not provide for their children fell upon the parish and the Poor Law for aid, and became a serious offence against the community.  The Poor Law Act of 1576 aptly captures attitudes towards illegitimacy of the day:

Concerning bastards begotten and born out of lawful matrimony (an offence against God’s and Man’s laws) the said bastards being now left to be kept at he charge of the parish where they were born, to be the great burden of the same parish and in defrauding of the relief of the impotent and aged true poor of the same Parish, and to the evil example and the encouragement of the lewd life, it is ordered and enacted.”

A Woman Swearing a Child to a Grave Citizen c.1729 Hogarth

William Hogarth. A Woman Swearing a Child to a Grave Citizen. c.1729.

It was believed that the Poor Law had to be harsh and humiliating otherwise the poor would abandon their children. In conjunction with the economic burden, a moral stigma grew as “sexual intercourse outside marriage was morally wrong, therefore any child conceived by an unmarried woman was viewed as the wages of sin.”

Illustration by Emma Brownlow from Foundling Hospital 1865

Illustration by Emma Brownlow King, from ‘John Brownlow, History and Objects of the Foundling Hospital’, 3rd edition, 1865

Over the next two hundred years the plight of the unmarried mother grew even more strained, as laws became harsher she was condemned morally and spiritually, and punished socially and materially. Due to the harshness of the Bastardy Clauses of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act there grew a great increase in infanticide, which was punishable by death according to the Act of 1832, to Prevent the Destroying and Murdering of Bastard Children [Statute 21, James I, Chapter 27]. Women, without access to any real effective birth control methods (for more on that see my post on Birth Control), who found themselves pregnant were then damned by any choice they then made.

News image of dead infant found
Increasing rate of infanticide as depicted in this news clipping.

In a brief aside to these harsh attitudes there is one organization I would like to mention. In the early eighteenth century there was a man, Captain Thomas Coram, who was shocked to discover the number of infant children left to die as a result of attitudes around unmarried motherhood. Unable to turn his back on this problem Coram began a petition to open an institution, the Foundling Hospital, that would allow women to give up their children without retribution, to be fostered and then later trained for employment. With much effort Coram at last was successful and the Foundling Hospital was opened in 1739. The demand was so great it was immediately filled and children became part of a lottery to see who would be allowed in. In need of funding to expand their services, the Hospital eventually secured the necessary funds under the direction that they must then accept any child in need. It became so and the Hospital operated a facility serving up to 400 children at any given time straight through to the early twentieth century when it restructured its services. Its charitable history in support of children in need continues as the Coram Foundation (www.coram.org.uk). To learn more I’d recommend a visit to the Foundling Museum (www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk).

Foundling children Londons Abandoned Children

London’s ‘abandoned children’ at The Foundling Hospital

So, aside from plugging the estimable Foundling Museum, this tells us that because women had few resources, no access to birth control, severe stigma, and harsh penalties if they fell pregnant out of wedlock that women and their children were suffering. Their suffering may have been partially eased by Coram’s institution, however adoption was still looked down upon as it was thought tantamount to giving poor ‘lewd’ women a license to indulge their sexual passions with impunity.

It was the Victorians which began to consider other reasons for illegitimacy beyond the mothers’ corrupt morals, most notable the harsh conditions under which many of the poor lived thus bringing the sexes in close proximity. It was perhaps factors other than the spiritual condition of the unmarried mother, however the middle classes of Victorian Britain still looked down upon the lower classes who seemed unable or unwilling to control their errant sexual desires.

Poor Woman and child

Poor mother

It was the First World War which shifted attitudes towards adoption, though notably attitudes towards unmarried mothers were still heavily stigmatized. It was estimated that in the early twentieth century at any one time there were 80,000 children in residential care under the provisions of the Poor Law. It was the First World War and need to provide orphaned children with a decent home which tipped the balance in favour of legalizing adoption, leading to the Adoption Act of 1926 which severed a birth mothers legal rights to her child and allowed the child to be brought up by another set of parents. This addressed only the circumstances for the illegitimate, now adopted, child and did nothing to change the way pregnancy outside of marriage was viewed. Furthermore, adoptions were conducted under a strong cloak of secrecy thus contributing to the notion of shame for the woman who bore and lost her child to adoption.

Orphans of WWI

Orphans of the First World War

The twentieth century continued to regard illegitimacy as a social problem, however ethics began to be replaced with scientific explanations. So, while these women were no longer guilty of a moral lapse (though many of the women in my project still spoke of severe shaming and the need for penitence during the 1960s), they were still regarded as deviant and as psychiatric cases in need of treatment. By the 1940s and 1950s “elaborate psychological models” existed to explain why some unmarried women had babies, frequently attributed to emotional issues with her parents. In 1961 it was stated that “when an adolescent girl in our society becomes pregnant outside of wedlock this is indicative that something has gone wrong in the relationship between the girl and her parents.”(Rall, p.3) No wonder young women were terrified of telling their parents, and of the shame inherent when their community discovered their pregnancy, when ‘science’ was suggesting they were psychologically defective and their parents failed in their parental duties. In extreme cases women who became pregnant outside of marriage were even confined to psychological institutions as parts of the scientific community perceived them as feeble minded, emotionally disturbed, or mentally disordered.

1960s Couple Kissing in Hyde Park copyright Bettmann Corbis

1960s and the Sexual Revolution

Which brings us to the 1960s, the period of my study, when “tolerance and the promotion of sexual freedom on the one hand coupled with intolerance and the stigmatization of illegitimacy on the other created a recipe for producing more children born outside marriage without making it any easier for unmarried mothers to care for them.” It was a time of increased sexual activity amongst the young, while the shame of unmarried motherhood remained strong, which led to Britain’s peak year for adoption in 1968 with a total of 16,164 adoptions in England and Wales that year alone.

Baby 1000 adopted 9 Nov 1962

Increased adoptions in 1960s

Attitudes towards illegitimacy and support structures for how to address it are deeply rooted in social conditioning.  It is the cultural context in which the unmarried mother finds herself and the attitudes towards having children outside marriage which most contribute to whether or not she keeps her child. There are many non-Western societies which have completely different cultural contexts for illegitimacy. In African, Caribbean, Indian, Polynesian and Eskimo communities they appear to practice kinship fostering and outright adoption to a much greater extent than in white Western societies, encouraging a communal responsibility for the next generation. If adoption is to exist in a society where possession, ownership and materialism reign supreme than it will become something exclusive of any communal support.

Unmarried motherhood in any form, whether a woman raises her child or forfeits for adoption, comes with many challenges and the attitudes that govern her experience have changed drastically over the past few centuries. After 1968 there has been an increasing acceptance of the unmarried mother and her child, which some attribute to a correlation between improved living conditions and a reduction in the social stigma associated with birth outside marriage. The availability of birth control to unmarried women in 1968 in Britain, the development of support  systems for single parents such as Gingerbread (www.gingerbread.org.uk) which began as a support group for single mothers in 1970s and has grown to become a support and advocacy group for single parent families, all of these things have helped in shifting the attitudes towards childbirth outside of marriage.

Rose baby

The author (c.1977) the perfectly happy bastard child of a single mom

The lesson in all of this, as we chart illegitimacy from medieval times through to the twenty first century, is that being an unmarried mother is a problem only to the extent that society has defined it as a problem and it is only through shifting our attitudes that we can change the way women and children are perceived and cared for in our communities.

Further reading for the curious:

Howe, David, Phillida Sawbridge, and Diana Hinings. Half a Million Women: Mothers who lose their children by adoption.   (1992, Penguin Books)

Pinchbeck, I. (1954) ‘Sexual attitudes to problems of illegitimacy’, British Journal of Sociology, no. 5 (which includes quotes of the Poor Law Act referenced above)

Gill, Derek. (1977) Illegitimacy, Sexuality and the Status of Women. Oxford: Blackwell.

Rall, Mary E. (1961) Casework with Parents of Adolescent Unmarried Mothers and Potential Unmarried Mothers. New York: child Welfare League of America.

Benet, Mary Kathleen (1976) The Character of Adoption. London: Jonathan Cape. (For references to non-Western cultures which include adoptive children in their communities)

London Lives, 1690-1800: Crime, Poverty and Social Policy in the Metropolis http://www.londonlives.org/static/EP.jsp

Organizations mentioned:

The Foundling Museum: www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk

Coram: www.coram.org.uk

Gingerbread: www.gingerbread.org.uk

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2 thoughts on “Growing Stigma around Unmarried Motherhood

  1. I am 59 years old – some of my family members, even in recent years have mocked my illegitimacy and it still wounds me to my core.

    As if it were not difficult enough to navigate this world with the knowledge that my father did not love me, I have had to endure the aftermath.

    Discussions in school about family trees, comments by friends about how they resemble their parents, and medical histories, are just a few of the conversations I had to learn to side-step,sometimes successfully, and sometimes not.

    It was a routine that became painfully familiar very early on.

    Consequently, and righteously, I “legitimately” consider my biological father to be the “bastard,” in the most righteous negative social context.

    My sister is also a bastard; 25 years ago her husband said in my presence, “(Our Mother’s Name’s) a slut” – I vowed to never set foot in his house again.

    And I never did.

    Although, for a very long time, for the sake of my relationship with my sister and her children, I attempted to ignore the cruelest sentiment I have ever known.

    Ultimately, I gradually lost connection to my sister and her children because, psychologically, and emotionally, I could not pretend, perhaps, especially because my sister attempted to trivialize it, and never spoke for me.

    I can’t help but be very bitter with my brother-in-law, Carmen.

    He navigates this world successfully with a confidence instilled in him through unconditional love, in a comparatively stable family.

    About 15 years ago, Carmen played a word game with me – he pretended to be playing a video game in my presence and kept on saying aloud “You bastards, you bastards, I’ll get you, you bastards, you bastards.” It was unmistakably directed at me since I had very recently made it clear that I did not like the word “bastard.”

    Just prior to that, he knew that my aunt, who he is friendly with, repeatedly called me: “you little bastard” on the day of the funeral of my grandmother who raised me and my sister.

    A few years later my brother-in-law told me “Maybe you’ve got brothers down the road you don’t know about.” Again, my bastard sister never addressed his cruelty to me.

    I have never been a vengeful or vindictive person, but I wish that my both my brother-in-law, and my aunt could feel what I have endured for my entire life, but I know it impossible.

    At one point in my life, I thought I was weak and just could not deal with my “birthright,” until I read Rod McKuen’s “Finding My Father,” – he searched far and wide, with heartache.

    Then I read Dick Gregory’s essay “Shame.” Gregory was mocked by a teacher when he was very young because, as she put it, in the presence of the entire class, “Everybody knows you don’t have a daddy.”

    He wrote about it in midlife, clearly, because it still bothered him.

    Then I read that actor Jack Nicholson discovered that, in his 40’s he discovered that his sister was really his mother. His close friends said the discovery changed him profoundly.

    And more recently, I watched a television special featuring a very brave woman – Pam Stengel – she was the product of a rape. Her crusade is clearly her solution to a heartache.

    I explained to my family members that my heartache and shame was not connected to weakness and I cited the aforementioned examples, yet they continued to mock me.

    It is distantly comforting to know the stories of others similar to mine, but I am no longer connected to my family, because, at a very essential level, I do not trust them or believe in them – the wounds are too deep and pervasive.

    My life is very lonely, because I cannot pretend. I hope this helps someone else in a similar situation, although, I am certain it is not a cure, by any means. Thank you for reading this.

  2. Pingback: Nova Scotia’s early child welfare laws – Local Law Lore

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