There was significant stigma around unmarried motherhood in the mid-twentieth century.
However, 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.
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 labour 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.
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 the 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.’
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 illegitimate children were seen to cause the parish, a moral stigma developed as sexual intercourse outside marriage was perceived as morally wrong; therefore any child conceived by an unmarried woman was viewed as the wages of sin.
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 who found themselves pregnant were then damned by any choice they made.
At this time, however, there was one organization in London which sought to help unmarried women in their plight. In the early eighteenth century Captain Thomas Coram 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 Mr. Coram began a petition to open an institution, the Foundling Hospital, which would allow women to give up their children without retribution, to be fostered and then later trained for employment. With much effort the Foundling Hospital was opened in 1737. 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 to become the Coram Foundation today.
The history of the Foundling Hospital demonstrates that women with illegitimate children were suffering. They had few resources, no access to birth control, and suffered harsh penalties and stigmatization if they fell pregnant out of wedlock. 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’ perceived corrupt morals, most notably they looked to the harsh conditions under which many of the poor lived which brought the sexes in close proximity. Victorian society contemplated factors other than the spiritual condition of the unmarried mother for her situation; however the middle classes of Victorian Britain still looked down upon the lower classes who they saw as unable or unwilling to control their errant sexual desires.
It was the First World War which shifted attitudes in favour of adoption, though attitudes towards unmarried mothers were still arguably 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 mother's legal right 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.
The twentieth century continued to regard illegitimacy as a social problem, however moral reasoning began to be replaced with scientific explanations. So, while these women were perhaps no longer seen as guilty of a moral lapse (though many of the women in this project 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, which were 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.’ 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.
This brings us to the 1960s, the period of this study, when new forms of popular culture and sexual freedom were balanced against continued intolerance and stigmatization of illegitimacy thus producing record numbers of children outside of marriage with no further assistance to unmarried mothers to provide for their offspring. It was a time of increased sexual activity amongst the young without increased sexual education or contraception, 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.
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. For adoption to exist in a society where possession, ownership and materialism reign supreme, such as most Western cultures, than it will (and has) 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, with the availability of birth control to unmarried women in Britain, there was a sharp decline in illegitimate pregnancies and associated adoptions. Organizations formed, such as Gingerbread, to support single mothers beginning in the 1970s, raising awareness and addressing policy concerns to shift attitudes around childbirth outside of marriage. However, while the moral panic of the 1960s which focused on the perceived sins of the unmarried mother have faded in many ways it has shifted to new conversations around the creation of a welfare state and current struggles with children being taken from their mothers over conditions of care.
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.