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Joanna Bourke looks back at how previous generations treated single mothers
In terms of wit, few anthropologists can beat Geoffrey Gorer. In his classic text, Exploring English Character (1955), he drily observed that: “Most people’s views on sexual morality are more rigid than their personal practice.” Pat Thane and Tanya Evans’ new book on unmarried mothers in 20th-century England is an astute historical reflection on Gorer’s comment. It is also a myth-buster. The authors dismiss the view that unmarried mothers prior to the 1960s were ruthlessly banished from respectable society. At the very least, there were simply too many of them. During the First World War, around nine per cent of births were illegitimate and even official statistics show that by the late 1930s nearly a third of ‘legitimate’ births had been conceived before marriage.
Of course, poverty and a hostile familial or community response to unmarried pregnancy sometimes resulted in the woman being institutionalised in a workhouse or hospital for the mentally ill. Her child might be packed off to foster care – a precarious fate even after fostering was officially regulated under the 1936 Public Health Act. But other unmarried mothers were able carefully to manage their lives in ways that brought some security and happiness.
Thane and Evans also make interesting observations about the role of voluntary organisations. They have made extensive use of the archives of the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and Her Child (now known as Gingerbread), which was established immediately after the First World War. In the words of its founder, Lettice Fisher, it was “a product of the energy released by the losses, agonies, and strain of the Great War”.
This scholarly book will fascinate readers curious both about the lives of unmarried mothers and their children, and about family life and community networks more generally.
Joanna Bourke is the author of What It Means to Be Human: Reflections from 1791 to the Present (Virago, 2011)