Without a License: Hiding Unwed Pregnancies

Post-war Western societies revered the nuclear family. This is how adoption came to be an acceptable and frequent practice. Couples unable to conceive worried over their inability to form a traditional family and were relieved of their childlessness by the growing practice of adoption. Any young couple understood that step one was marriage, step two was children. Motherhood, revered within marriage, was reviled outside of it. Thus, unmarried women who became pregnant offered the necessary stock of babies for married couples who could not conceive. One participant in my project who desperately wanted to keep her infant son described it as: “A marriage certificate. That’s the dividing line between its good and it’s not good.” This demarcation between the joyful reception an expectant married woman would receive and the dark looks, tears and anger an unmarried mother-to-be would confront all came down to that marriage certificate. Without this license to wed, this license to procreate, women were stigmatized and made to feel ashamed and guilty for their so-called transgressions.

1961_wedding_vera_coupleAdopted Baby 1000 Catholic Herald Nov 19621960s Portrait Family Father Mother Two Daughters Son Standing Together Outdoors

“First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage”

Unmarried mothers of the 1960s understood the social conditions of their shame so intrinsically they often responded with denial. With fervent prayers to escape the physical mark of their sexual encounter, prayed for miscarriages or marriages, anything to remove them from the heartache that was to come. They masked their growing bodies beneath voluminous fashions, hid their morning sickness, excused their missed periods. However, eventually they had to confront the reality of their situation through doctor’s visits, telling their parents, and being led through the motions of decisions about their future.

Their stigma was cemented in the reactions of parents, friends, family, employers and school principals. In every way they were told that what they had done was wrong and in need of hiding. Banishment was the most  obvious manner of cloaking their pregnancy, as women were shipped off to mother and baby homes distant from their local community as quickly as they could be accepted. Intentionally sent far from home to avoid neighbors uncovering the family’s new secret, taking care to protect their social standing, their ‘good name’ and respectability.

St Faiths Home Bearsted pub by Bearsted adn Thurnham Society

Saint Faith’s Home for Unmarried Mothers. Bearsted, Kent, UK

But for many, the Homes did not accept women until six-weeks or so before their due date. Which meant finding alternatives to conceal their growing bodies, to cloak the reality of their situation from the community. Some found jobs as nannies, as live-in mothers helpers, or stayed in hostels. For those that remained at home until being sent to the mother and baby home they were frequently barred from leaving the house during the day, slipping out on in the cloak of darkness, and keeping to their room whenever someone visited.

Eatons-Montreal-Duffle-Coat-1950-large

1958 Ad for the Duffle Coat – Perfect to disguise a growing waistline

However, the deceptions to mask their infidelity played out in other ways as well. Many of the women in this project described being told to wear a duffel coat when they left the house. These voluminous overcoats popular during the 1960s allowed the women to hide their shame under layers of heavy wool. One admitted to wearing a girdle far into her pregnancy to maintain a slim profile. A grandmother insisted her pregnant granddaughter wear a hat pulled down low anytime they were to be out together so no one would recognize her.

1967 Maternity Corset1962 Maternity Corset

Maternity girdles

The mothers of the pregnant women frequently insisted their unmarried daughters wear a “Woolworth’s wedding ring” to disguise their sin, thus pointing to the clear demarcation in which married pregnancy is revered and unmarried pregnancy reviled. A number of the women protested against this falsehood, removing their ring whenever their mother left or refusing to wear it at all. Though some continued to slip it on anytime they went out with their bellies belying their situation, hoping the slim gold band would offer some protection against suspicious glances or rude treatment in the local shops.

Woolworths 1960s Getty image

Woolworth’s – Purveyors of false wedding bands and other practicalities

In some cases the women were checked into hospital under an assumed married name so the locals wouldn’t learn of the pregnancy and birth. Several homes during this period assigned incoming expectant mothers with false names to be used while in the home so even their roommates would not know their true identity; however this was not the majority experience of the women in my study. Of course, the culminating mask of their maternity came with the adoption of their child. While the women bestowed names lovingly upon their newborns, these were quickly wiped clean as the infants were adopted, given new names and cutting all ties to the women who created them. These mothers without children were then sent home, to pick up the broken pieces of their lives without mention of the life they grew inside them. A new disguise worn: that of a woman without children, a woman who had never known the growth of life within her, expected to move through the world of married families as though she had not experienced such motherhood herself.

The shame, the guilt, the heartache was not soothed upon the relinquishment of their children. No woolen coat or false gold ring could protect them from the feelings of guilt, humiliation, hurt, and disappointment others made them feel for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Or those feelings they felt for having relinquished their child to another family. A family legitimized by a marriage certificate.

 

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The Shock of Pregnancy for the Unwed

I think for any unmarried teenage girl finding out you are pregnant is an unwelcome shock, perhaps there are exceptions but given attitudes around illegitimacy, women’s sexuality and the difficulties of single parenthood I imagine the majority wish they could simply undo what had been done. I have been debating whether to share my own encounter with teenage pregnancy, worried over whether it would taint the academic nature of my work, would reflect poorly as an experience that happened in a very different time from those mothers whom I have been studying, or perhaps will just offend those that do not agree with the choice I made. In the end I have decided to go ahead and share this, with perhaps a fair dose of hesitation. I feel that all the women interviewed for my project have been so open with their own stories, far far more traumatic than my own, and I have been so honored to bear witness to these stories, that it is somehow feels false to not be willing to share my own.

Pregnancy Test

Home pregnancy test

My tale is not unusual. I was a teenager in the early 1990s, and at one point had a brief and fairly casual relationship with a particular young man a few years older than myself. One day I didn’t feel well, my roommate suggested I take a pregnancy test, which I thought was a joke, there was no way I was pregnant. I used birth control. She wouldn’t let it go so I finally gave in and purchased a test, doing it only to make her drop the issue. When the test returned positive I was beyond shocked. I had had absolutely no awareness of it, and it seemed completely surreal. I grew up decades after the stories of those I’m collecting, and in a very open and loving home, yet I was somehow very prudish and would never talk to my mother about sex. To discover I was pregnant was mortifying, and even though my mother and sister both had children out of wedlock I was terrified that my mother would find out about me. (Anyone who knows my mother might laugh at this, she was a very free-love hippie type. But I was not and feared somehow disappointing her.) I had no hesitation in deciding to terminate the pregnancy. From an absolutely pragmatic sense I knew I was too young, had no resources, and did not want to ruin my life or that of another human being by trying to raise them without the skills or means necessary to do so. I contacted the father, which was strained and difficult as we had already broken off, and I told him he had to take me to the clinic. The day of the termination was one of the worst I can remember, I was awake the entire night before stressing over what was to come. I was angry and upset by the father’s ability to go out drinking then sleep comfortably through the night. We had a long tense drive, where neither of us spoke for a few hours. The entire experience was surreal, like watching your body go through the motions while you float somewhere above it. It wasn’t until the afternoon that he and I finally spoke to each other. Following the procedure I was woozy and sick, felt guilty for making him wait while I recovered, and kept apologizing. He returned me to my home and I don’t think we’ve had a single interaction since that day.  The days and weeks that followed carried a unique level of distress as I fell into a depression and contemplated suicide. Thankfully with the support of my friends and qualified counselors I recovered fairly quickly. I have never once regretted that decision, I have always known it was the right thing to do. And yet, every year my mind will roll back the clock and contemplate how old that daughter would be (for some reason I always imagined the fetus was a girl). And as my own biological clock ticks, as I ponder whether or not to have children as my years tick by, that being often comes to mind. I hope you will not judge me for my choice, and even if it is one you disagree with I hope you will continue to read and consider the stories of these women who had to make another choice in far more difficult conditions. My reason for sharing my own story is twofold, first it seems incomplete to talk about the subject without confessing one of my own connections. Two, it marks the extraordinarily difficult position these women were put into. I was a child of the 80s and 90s, I had an open and loving mother, I had a sister who had already had children outside of marriage, and I had access to abortion. And yet I still suffered the trauma of that loss, of depression and attempted suicide. The women of this study were raised in an era when unmarried motherhood was truly reviled, had parents who refused to discuss such intimate matters as sex and pregnancy, had no access to abortion (though whether they would have chosen this option I could not say), and were forced without having too much choice in the matter to hide their pregnancies, to carry and bear a child they had to give up for adoption.

acutest_1978_popup

Advertisement for the earliest home pregnancy tests, Mademoiselle, December 1978.

 

That is the climate I want you to understand when reading about the moment they discovered they were pregnant. There were no home pregnancy tests in the 1960s, these did not appear until 1978. A few experienced horrendous morning sickness, which they had to go to great lengths to hide as they shared bedrooms and bathrooms with family, waking extra early to be sick before the rest of the family woke. Or being sick in their bedrooms and having to hide it so no one would find out. For the majority it was the absence of their period that clued them in to the pregnancy. Some understood what this meant almost immediately, while others existed in a detached state of denial which kept them from truly believing the meaning of that absence. The women’s mothers were commonly the ones who purchased the sanitary napkins each month, and when the girls failed to show the mothers became aware of what was happening. Many prayed it would go away if they just ignored it.

mornidine

1959 Advertisement for Mornidine for morning sickness, Canadian Medical Association Journal

Eventually they each were made to face the difficult reality of their situation, this often occurred in the doctor’s office. Either on their own or with their mothers the women were taken to their family doctor who confirmed their pregnancy. The news, even if they had already known it, was devastating. One recalls falling into a surreal state, like being underwater. The world moving past her and she was trapped in a dream. The doctors generally didn’t want to know anything, perhaps living in a small community they wished to avoid being involved in anyway. One said to the young woman, ‘Don’t tell me anything. I don’t want to know. I’ll give you the name of a social worker and she’ll sort you out.’ Another told the terrified mother-to-be, ‘Have some gin and a hot bath. Try falling down the stairs a few times.’ While a third said, ‘All I can do is give you a douche can and hope that works.’ The women did not explicitly ask for abortifacients, but their shock and the cultural understanding that unmarried pregnancy was unthinkable prompted their doctors to provide such advice.

The women were devastated with the discovery. For there were many young men and women having sex before marriage, but it was only the unlucky that found themselves pregnant. Their pregnancy marking them for their supposed moral transgressions, and setting them on a path of heartache and loss. A moment, which for married women was one of joy and celebration, became instead a time of shame and guilt. They understood intrinsically the social climate in which they lived, they knew the mark this transgression placed upon them, and they feared what was to come. For some this weight of shame and guilt was too much and they attempted to induce a miscarriage, or at the more extreme end even attempted suicide. Fear of their parents finding out was tantamount to their desperate measures, and underscores the social conditions these women existed in.

Keep reading as this journey carries the women to the unavoidable confrontation with their parents, to admit they were with child, and to enter an entirely new world which was dictated by their pregnancy out of wedlock.

 

Additional reading for the curious

History of the Pregnancy Test http://history.nih.gov/exhibits/thinblueline/timeline.html

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