Sinners? Scroungers? Saints? Unmarried Motherhood in Twentieth-Century England

The absence of the didactic from this study of lone parents makes it all the stronger, says Mary Evans

August 9, 2012

Everyone associated with this book should be warmly congratulated: the authors, the institution that is the basis of their research (what was the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child and subsequently Gingerbread) and Oxford University Press for publishing an almost-forgotten form of book - the academic monograph. It is also a work that should make readers cheer, fume with rage and on a couple of occasions laugh out loud.

Let us start with the laughter and the importance of remembering, as Thomas Macaulay observed, that there is "no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality". Pat Thane and Tanya Evans quote a remark made in 1959 by Geoffrey Fisher, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in which he suggested that the current "tide" of adultery was such that "it ought to be made a criminal offence". His words are ludicrous and yet frightening, made within a social structure that had (and has) the power to victimise those it chooses to name as deviant.

But what this book also attests to is that while the powerful (and their later reincarnations as Daily Mail journalists) can express certain views, the weak suffer the consequences at the same time as they, and others, resist. Thane and Evans do not shy away from documenting the suffering and hardship that women with babies but without husbands had to face, but they also tell a tale of coherent, organised assistance as well as individual acts of kindness and support. In telling this story, they do not adopt or advance any particular theoretical stance: what they demonstrate particularly well is the power that lies in the construction and documentation of a particular case, in this instance an exceptionally detailed narrative about what is arguably one of the most important cultural shifts in 20th-century Britain: the gradual erosion of the institutional power of the concept of legitimate and illegitimate birth.

That binary (whose absurdity is implicit in its language) produced powerful regimes of shame and exclusion that wrecked many lives. From Elizabeth Gaskell's 1853 novel Ruth, there has been an articulate tradition of people, both women and men, who have argued against the punishment of unmarried mothers and their children, and for an ethic of shared male and female responsibility for parenthood. That tradition is represented in the work of the National Council, whose archive is at the centre of this book.

Opposition to that tradition has come from diverse individuals and institutions, not least those "experts" espousing a rigid commitment to the ideal of the heterosexual, two-parent family.

One of the many excellent aspects of this fine book is that it allows the reader space to consider connections between past and present in which we endlessly recreate, albeit in different forms, moral arguments about the family and parenthood. This absence of the didactic makes the book all the stronger. It never shrinks from showing that unmarried mothers were often brutally punished and that their children grew up in difficult circumstances. But at the same time it does not paint a comfortably clear-cut picture of progression towards universal social enlightenment and a shift towards a less punitive society. As the book concludes, the National Council and its successors have worked long and hard for the lone parents whose lives remain, as the authors say, "desperately hard". Many of the reasons are set out with chilling clarity in this valuable study.

Sinners? Scroungers? Saints? Unmarried Motherhood in Twentieth-Century England

By Pat Thane and Tanya Evans

Oxford University Press, 240pp, £60.00

ISBN 9780199578504

Published 31 May 2012

to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments