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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Unwanted Pregnancies and the Alternatives

Invariably, the women who participated in this study were surprised by their pregnancies and dismayed at what this meant for them. The fathers could largely avoid any of the responsibility or stigma associated with unmarried parenthood, yet the women were physically marked by their premarital infidelities and plunged into a painful situation where they had to consider what would happen to them, their babies, and the relationships with those close to them. Many of their parents responded with anger, hurt, shame, or disappointment. Women lost friends and boyfriends, jobs and schooling opportunities, all because they were unlucky enough to fall pregnant. It is therefore unsurprising that along with a healthy dose of denial many considered ‘alternatives’ to escape pregnancy. Perhaps more surprising is how many people offered up these helpful suggestions, including their doctors.

Gin bath

Most frequent suggestion: Gin and a Hot Bath (admittedly, Hendricks was unlikely to be the available gin option)

The most common advice for getting rid of an unwanted pregnancy was gin and a hot bath. Many unmarried pregnant women who knew little of contraceptives knew about the old ‘gin and a hot bath’ remedy. Though many were unclear on how much gin to take, whether or not a hot bath was also required, and whether the gin itself should also be hot.  One doctor’s medical advice after confirming a woman’s pregnancy was, “have some gin and a hot bath, perhaps try falling down the stairs a few times.” Falling down the stairs was also mentioned by others. One woman knew that quinine could bring about a miscarriage and unable to buy it in its pure form consumed ample amounts of it that was sold as a flu remedy. She failed to miscarry, instead becoming dreadfully ill thus forcing her to tell her parents she was pregnant. The one thing she was trying to avoid by taking the quinine in the first place.

Quinine Ad

Quinine found in cold remedies

Some were offered douche cans by their doctors, or acquired them on their own, but the douching failed to bring about miscarriage. Others mentioned knitting needles and crochet hooks, though they did not attempt these methods. Abortifacient suggestions were quietly passed between desperate women, which beyond those mentioned above also included pennyroyal, salts, slippery elm bark, leeches, deliberate injury (such as falling down stairs), caustic soap and syringe. A woman from Kate Fisher’s research in Birth Control, Sex, and Marriage in Britain 1918-1960 recounts “My one friend used to take gin with, um something, and they used to put it in the oven and when it used to go down they used to drink it. It was like a sedative to make you go to the toilet and – to get rid of it that way. Then there was slippery elm and the leech. The leech you’d put inside you and then it would attack the womb, and open the womb up, and of course you’d lose the baby then. I know one of my aunties done it.”

Folding Feminine Syringe

Feminine Syringe for Douching

One desperate young woman in my study tried gin and a hot bath, douching, repeatedly jumping off the high dive, and finally took herself to a back alley abortionist she had heard of. Arriving at his shabby door she discovered he was out, but she was invited to come in and wait for him. After sitting in the grungy residence for about an hour she decided it wasn’t a good idea, made her apologies and left. England has a mixed history with access to abortion, where it was legal for the most part to induce a miscarriage up until ‘quickening’ (i.e. when movement is felt at 16-20 weeks, once believed to be the point when the soul was entering the fetus). However the 1861 Offences Against the Person act made all abortions illegal, and while those guidelines varied over the next century, it wasn’t until 1967 that abortions were again made legal in England. This change is largely due to the number of maternal deaths occurring from illegal and self induced abortions in the interwar and postwar periods. As a result legal abortion was not an option for the majority of the women in this study, instead they relied upon wives tales and rumors to help them escape the mantle of shame cloaking them as soon as their pregnancies were discovered.

Lysol advertisement Zonite ad 2 Douche powder ad 1969

 Lysol, Koromex and Zonite all advertised as germicides to be used when douching for ‘Feminine Hygiene’

 

Keep following the journey of these unmarried mothers as I recount their stories of telling their parents in my next update.

 

Further reading for the curious:

http://www.abortionrights.org.uk/index.php/media-and-resource-centre/abortion-law/275

Fisher, Kate.  Birth Control, Sex, and Marriage in Britain 1918-1960. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Szreter, Simon and Fisher, Kate. Sex Before the Sexual Revolution. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Szreter, Simon. Fertility and Contraception during the Demographic Transition: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 34, No. 2. Pp. 141-154

Birth Control and the Sexual Revolution

Today, we take our ability to mitigate pregnancies through contraception as a given. A visit to the clinic can offer us pills, patches, IUDs, condoms in every imaginable shape, color and flavor. I was a child of the 80s and carry a distinct memory of going to a health clinic with my mum and brother for something commonplace like a cold or flu. In the waiting room there was a big bowl of condoms, which my brother and I secretly filled our pockets with. Afterwards, as we frolicked in a park in the sunshine we blew them up like big balloons and fell into fits of giggles as we bopped them in the air, making up games that required us to keep them afloat. My mum may have been mortified, but I doubt it. She was a pretty free spirit, and we really didn’t have a clear idea what they were for other than something adults did. By 6th grade I clearly understood their purpose, especially in science class as our teacher led us through the process of pinching the tips as we slowly unrolled them over bananas. Yes, I’m the generation that blushed as we unrolled condoms over bananas in science class as if it was a totally normal thing to do.

My, how things have changed! Birth control has actually existed for quite some time, but the accessibility to it is what is so new. Condoms have been around for ages, becoming prevalent in the 16th century in response to syphilis. Originally fashioned from sheep gut, fish bladder or linen they were used with ointments and medicinal solutions. It was the change in rubber processing in the mid-nineteenth century which revolutionized condoms into slowly evolving to those we know today.

condom-animal  condom packaging c1930-1950 Case Western Reserve University website
Animal membrane condom    |     Condom packaging, c. 1930-1950

Aside from condoms, there grew a wide variety of contraceptive options available with mixed reliability including douches, spermicides, cervical caps, diaphragms and sponges.  Most of these were acquired through a visit to your local doctor. Thus lies the challenge to many sexually active men and women, the requirement of talking about this very private activity with an outsider. Women remarked that “It took a lot of courage to even ask the doctor how to limit births. And the doctor was as embarrassed as I was. So I wasn’t satisfied with what he told me, but I didn’t have the nerve to go to another doctor.” (Fisher, p.45) Not only was this a difficult topic for women to have with their doctor, this interchange was restricted to married women. Birth control, or colloquially ‘preventative checks’, ‘artificial checks’ or ‘Malthusianisms’ were widely understood as something relegated to the married, as the unmarried were presumably not sexually active. (Fisher, p. 49) In the early 20th century it was commonplace that men were responsible for managing the family’s reproduction, as the topic was considered something within the masculine sphere and not quite appropriate for women to discuss.

Contraception 1900-1950 from case.edu  

Birth control methods, c. 1900-1950

Revolutionaries such as Margaret Sanger (American birth control advocate, 1879-1966) and Marie Stopes (author, Married Love, 1918) certainly made enormous strides in reproductive history, but as they were entering the scene in the early 20th century they didn’t have an immediate impact on everyday sexual practices between couples. Particularly as the majority of married couples seemed to rely on withdrawal or the rhythm method once it was understood in the 1930s to control the number of pregnancies they had.

Rhythmeter for rhythm method from case.edu

The ‘Rythmeter” to help couples track cycles for safe sex, c.1930

The contraceptive pill did not arrive in England until the 1960s and wasn’t available to unmarried women until  1968, its impact evident in the decreased numbers of illegitimate births and adoptions following that year. (Clark, p.56)

Early Enovid birth control pill bottle c.1960 from case.edu birth control pills from case.edu

Enovid, birth control pill available in England, c. 1968   |   Birth Control Pills later

However, even if young men could acquire condoms through local chemists, the majority of women participating in my study remarked that there “wasn’t really birth control in those days.”  They knew of ‘johnnies’  or ‘French Letters,’ euphemisms for condoms, but for the most part had never seen one. The majority relied on their beau’s knowledge of the withdrawal method. Their parents did not discuss sex with them, there was no sex education in the schools, and contraception wasn’t even included in midwifery texts until the 1960s. Their parents were equipped with antiquated terms such as “taking the kettle off before it boils” (withdrawal) or “driving a car without petrol” (non-coital forms of lovemaking). While the sexual revolution may have been drawing young men and women closer before marriage, it was failing to provide them with much more information than the generations before.  Girls ignorance around sex implied “moral purity, innocence and respectability” but did little to protect them from the very real dangers of unprotected sex.

 

Further reading for the curious:

Fisher, Kate. 2006. “Birth Control, Sex, and Marriage in Britain 1918-1960” Oxford University Press

Clark, Gillian. 2008 “The Role of Mother and Baby Homes in the Adoption of Children Born Outside Marriage in Twentiety-Century England and Wales.” Family & Community History, Vol. II/I,Mmay 2008.

Case Western Reserve University. Virtue, Vice and Contraband: A History of Contraception in America. http://www.case.edu/affil/skuyhistcontraception/index.html

*All photos courtesy of Case Western Reserve University