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KatGransnet (GNHQ) Thu 04-Feb-16 14:02:23

The stigma of illegitimacy in the sixties

Author Jane Robinson on the stigma of illegitimacy in the sixties, and what it meant for 'wayward women' and their babies.

Jane Robinson

The stigma of illegitimacy in the sixties

Posted on: Thu 04-Feb-16 14:02:23


Lead photo

"She was expected to forget the whole episode and carry on with life, damaged and in denial."

Last week's episode of Call the Midwife was heart-breaking. The fate of teacher Dorothy Whitmore seemed so cruel. It's hard to imagine, just a few decades later, how intense the stigma of illegitimacy was before the permissive age. One 'mistake' could ruin the life of an unmarried mother and her child.

The working class community around Nonnatus House is generally close and supportive. But a common pattern in the years between the Great War and the swinging sixties was for families – especially middle class families - to hide an errant daughter away. If she fell pregnant she was sneaked into the doctor's surgery through the back door, so no nosey neighbour could see her and draw dangerous conclusions.

Once she began to 'show', the young lady would be sent as far away as possible, to a mother-and-baby home where she would be expected to do daily household chores until her confinement. Despite understandable anxieties, many 'EM's (expectant mothers) recall their time in a mother-and-baby home with fondness, and friendships forged there still survive. Sadly, however, that’s not always so. No doubt some of the staff were sympathetic but others were cold and distant, believing harsh treatment to be a fitting punishment for wayward women: the wages of sin.

Others were cold and distant, believing harsh treatment to be a fitting punishment for wayward women: the wages of sin.

Occasionally, mother-and-baby homes had their own maternity wing attached; generally the women were sent to the local maternity hospital to give birth, segregated from the 'respectable' patients who wore real wedding rings rather than hasty brass curtain-rings and had proud husbands to visit them with bunches of flowers.

After the birth, mother and child were returned to the home where they remained for the next six weeks. In most cases, the expectation was that the baby would then be adopted, as long as he or she had no obvious ‘defects’ (a disability, disease, or different-coloured skin). There they would live together, allowed to bond, until the awful day when the child was handed over to an agency or directly to new parents.

The cries of women bereft of their babies still echo in the memories of those who went through this desperate experience. In more than one establishment all the mothers were shut into a room at the home - not just the mother of the baby being 'given up' - to minimise the chances of one running amok with grief and embarrassing the authorities. The curtains were drawn and the door locked. After the deed was done, the anguished mother was returned home; a fiction was invented to explain her absence for the past few months, and then she was expected to forget the whole episode and carry on with life, damaged and in denial.

Of course, it wasn't always like this: mothers and their illegitimate babies sometimes stayed together, embraced by family and friends, and were treated - as we know from Call the Midwife - with compassion and respect. But we shouldn't forget the unlucky ones, who find it hard to talk about their experiences, even now. Some wounds are very slow to heal.

Jane's new book, In the Family Way: Illegitimacy Between the Great War and the Swinging Sixties, is published by Viking and is available from Amazon.

By Jane Robinson

Twitter: @janerobinson00

loopylou Thu 04-Feb-16 14:16:18

It's tragic, just how cruelly unmarried and pregnant women were treated; my parents told me in no uncertain terms that I'd be kicked out if it happened to me.

Before Mother and Baby homes things were even more brutal. I worked in a Nursing Home where one resident was allegedly deaf and mute, she spent all her day sitting on a dining room chair in a corner of the hallway, refusing to integrate in any way.

Her story was that she'd had an illegitimate baby and was sent to the workhouse at the age of 16.

I remember watching episodes of Find my Family in tears because of the way the mums were treated. A school friend of mine in the 60's had an illegitimate baby, was sent to a Mother and Baby home and the baby taken from her. She never really got over it and killed herself 15 years later. Her family apparently constantly told her she was a sinner and would go to hell....and refused her a burial or church service. I only knew of her death ages later, so perhaps things haven't changed that much after all for some people.

Penstemmon Thu 04-Feb-16 14:20:45

This is interesting. My eldest cousin was born "illegitimately". My aunt was a teacher and I understand she went away to have her baby. The baby was brought up by my grandmother and my aunt went to work overseas for a time. Nobody in the family ever spoke about the situation and I remember , as I got older realising the impossibility of my cousin actually being my grandmother's child but I was an adult before I knew the truth.

Willow500 Thu 04-Feb-16 15:12:05

My mum born in 1920 was illegitimate. Her mother with 4 other children was a war widow and met a man she thought would be able to take care of her. Sadly when she found out she was pregnant she found out he was married and she was so ashamed. I never met my grandmother who died when she was only 61 but I feel she must have been an amazingly strong woman. She chose to keep the baby when it must have been a terrible struggle and brought all five children up on her own. My mum did find it a stigma especially at school when other girls wore good clothes and shoes and Mum's mother couldn't afford them but she thought the world of her and was devastated when she passed away when Mum was only 21. When I got pregnant unmarried and very young in the early 70's I was deeply aware of the disappointment I was to her - thankfully by the time my son arrived I was married and she was able to enjoy him so the guilt went away.

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 04-Feb-16 16:03:08

Oh for God's sake! It wasn't that bad in the sixties! hmm Try the fucking forties.

ginny Thu 04-Feb-16 16:13:19

My MIL was 4 months pregnant when she and FIL married in 1951 at the age of 19. She was one of the lucky ones whose family supported her and her boyfriend was willing to marry her. However to this day she she has never told anyone and they always celebrated their anniversaries one year early. FIL died last year and they had been married for 64 years. DH and I would have liked to have arranged for a card from the queen for their 60 th anniversary but of course we could not as they would have needed to show their marriage certificate. DH and I discovered the date discrepancy whilst researching family trees. We have not mentioned to her that we know as it is obviously something that was covered up and not spoken about and really there is no point in upsetting her. It does rankle a bit though when she goes on about single mothers and the amount of babies born to unmarried mothers / couples. To be honest I do think that she has convinced herself that she was married a year earlier.

boulding2 Thu 04-Feb-16 16:15:48

My father was born in 1925 he also was illegitimate the father was married to another woman who couldn't have children after he was born he approached my grandmother and said he wanted my dad to live with him my grandmother was so angry she sent him away with a flea in his ear and she never heard from him again and refused to tell my dad who his father was.
She never gave him up like willow500 mother they were very strong woman

Anniebach Thu 04-Feb-16 16:39:52

We need also to remember many babies given up for adoption were welcomed into a home with two parents, didn't suffer the stigmatism of bastard and in the pre sixty years were spared a poverty stricken home and exhausted mother , hell for the birth mothers giving up their child but not for the child

Katek Thu 04-Feb-16 17:07:26

I had a friend who became pregnant to a married man in 1967 when she was barely 17. Her family would have disowned her had they known, so she stayed with ex DH's (we were engaged) family on the other side of the city. A subterfuge was set up with a friend of mine in Brighton who forwarded mail between my friend and her parents. They had been told she was working down there. She duly gave birth to a son who was adopted. She was never quite the same afterwards despite eventually marrying and having more children. She remained very close to ex DH's mother-I suppose she was one of the few people she could be honest with. She died in her early 50's having never seen her son. Very sad.

janeainsworth Thu 04-Feb-16 17:12:00

I don't know about the 40s, but as late as the 80's my DD had piano lessons from a woman who took in pregnant, unmarried girls who had nowhere to go.
I read things like this and think it could so easily have been me.

Stansgran Thu 04-Feb-16 17:58:43

I was at uni in the Sixties and my then boyfriend was a slightly older student. Two of his friends were in a relationship ,became pregnant and arranged to live together for the final year. They both failed their finals and had to redo that year with a baby. The general opinion was that they were failed not on their abilities but on their overt sex life. It was shocking to me but not to my parents' generation judging by the head nodding when I came home bursting with indignation.

Marelli Thu 04-Feb-16 18:02:23

I had my DD when I was 16. When my parents found out that I was pregnant, my father took me to the doctor and asked for me to be placed in a mother and baby home. The doctor was horrified and told him that he couldn't put a 'girl like me' in a place like that hmm (I was rather quiet and a bit studious). So I stayed at home, not being allowed out in case the neighbours saw me. The summer of '66 seemed to be really hot and I was only allowed to go so far down into the garden. Once she was born my parents tried to make me have her adopted, but I fought against this and married the father, so that I could keep my baby. Until then, DD was fostered while the fighting to keep her went on. When she was 7 months we married and I was able to get her out of the foster home. My parents wouldn't let me bring her to their house and moved home as soon as we married, allowing visits once they'd moved. I was an only child and obviously a big disappointment to them. The marriage was a disaster, and we divorced after 3 years, but it did mean that I was able to keep her. DD will be 50 this year. smile

Bellanonna Thu 04-Feb-16 18:29:55

Well done Marelli

GrandmaB63 Thu 04-Feb-16 18:33:36

Very sad reading some of the above stories. We adopted our DD in the eighties and she also became an unmarried mum in 2009. Our DGD is a greatly loved and very much wanted member of the family. However, prejudice is still very much in evidence and from an unexpected quarter I've discovered. I, too, was very moved by the plight of the unmarried teacher in Call the Midwife and agreed with the Mother Superior's comment about how lightly the father had got off, (as usual). Strange then that the people in our circle who seem most indignant about our DD's circumstances are MEN in their 60's. Of course they can't possibly know what a young woman would have gone through to have had and kept her baby in the face of such hostility. Maybe they feel a little guilty that they may have got off lightly in the reproductive stakes or realise that they wouldn't have had the guts to stand by a girlfriend if it had happened to them!

NotTooOld Thu 04-Feb-16 18:49:20

Such sad stories but thank goodness things are now so different.

Marelli - I truly admire your courage.

Ana Thu 04-Feb-16 18:55:30

I'm amazed that anyone would turn a hair at a young woman having a baby without being married in 2009!

Marelli, good for you smile

Maggiemaybe Thu 04-Feb-16 19:13:33

Me too, Ana. I'd have thought it was about 50/50 married/unmarried now. When my DGS1 was expected in 2012, only one person expressed any prejudice at all and he was a religious nutter had mental health issues. Everyone who overheard his rant about how this was a disgrace that would never happen to his daughter was gobsmacked - and extremely sorry for his obviously embarrassed wife and the poor daughter in question!

annodomini Thu 04-Feb-16 19:36:58

My DS1 was an unmarried dad. The relationship broke up for various reasons but when he went to work abroad, I kept my relationship with the mother and DGD and her half brother going. Eventually DS and (then) fiancée came home to work and my DiL is now a wonderful stepmother. DGD graduated 2.5 years ago and now lives with DS, DiL and her two younger siblings. There are so many broken families nowadays that nobody ever commented on her coming from a single parent home or on the fact that she's mixed race. DS2 and his partner have been together for 22 years, never married and have two lovely DSs. The fact that they use different surnames doesn't seem to faze anyone. It was very different in the late 50s when a cousin became pregnant though she got married just in time for her daughter to be 'legitimate'. There was much rolling of eyes among the older generation.

Marelli Thu 04-Feb-16 20:53:26

I had a very supportive social worker, thankfully. She was as good at standing up to my parents as I was!
Also, I'm so grateful to a wee student nurse who brought my baby to me one morning. This was the first I'd seen her since her birth, as she was to be adopted, and my parents decided I should go straight home from the maternity hospital and DD would go to a foster mother. When the young nurse brought her to me that morning, I told her that I wasn't allowed to have her (all the other mothers' babies were being brought in from the nursery, too). The wee nurse briskly replied, 'Of course you must have her, Mrs. Marelli (always Mrs!) She's yours!' That was it, and the rest is history, as they say! smile

GrannyR Fri 05-Feb-16 00:22:28

Jinglbellsfrocks .I would beg to differ ! I was in one of the homes and they were everything that's been said about them ! Never forgotten .

Elrel Fri 05-Feb-16 00:48:54

The attitude of the pregnant woman's parents was, and probably still is, a very important factor. The community she lived in was also of course relevant to how she was regarded and treated.

Many couples who 'had to get married' had long and happy marriages but some young women brought up their children without a partner.

It was perfectly possible to be an 'unmarried mother' in the 60s and for a child to be 'illegitimate' although that particular word was not necessarily used. 'Single parent' is better than 'unmarried mother' because it covers various circumstances. Anyway, who, apart from official bodies, nowadays knows, or needs to know the status of a mother or of her child?

The National Association for the Unmarried Mother and her Child offered advice and support, it was in Kentish Town and was run by Pauline Crabbe, a wonderful woman.

cornergran Fri 05-Feb-16 03:10:46

Deciding to bring the date of our wedding forward by 6 months triggered all sorts of gossip. My father took some convincing I wasn't 'in trouble'. Once convinced he fought our corner with the gossips who were finally convinced by my very slim figure on our wedding day and in the following months. That was late 60's in East London. Some very entrenched views. Had I been pregnant there would certainly have been a battle, huge shame and such anger. I admire your courage Marelli, I'm not sure I would have had your strength. It seemed impossible to deal with rumours and I can only imagine how much worse for you.

Marelli Fri 05-Feb-16 06:39:28

cornergran, my mother dealt with the rumours by taking to her bed for most of the last half of my pregnancy. We lived in a small Scottish village (having moved there when I was still a child), and so I don't suppose, to be fair, that she'd created a supportive network of friends that might've helped her deal with it all. She was quite a reserved person. One day, however, she did go into 'town' to buy me a maternity smock and skirt with expanding waistband! It was of the dullest, muddiest colours you could imagine! She then stayed in the house once more, and Dad did the shopping on the way back from work. It's strange, thinking about it all again. My mother had been illegitimate, too. She'd been brought up by her grandmother, while her mother (16), who had had plans to go to university, had to leave school to go to work in service. This was 1924. My mother hadn't known her grandma wasn't her mother until she was in her teens, herself. I can only imagine that having this happen to me, was really hard for her to bear.

f77ms Fri 05-Feb-16 07:38:45

My cousin got pregnant in 1968 , she kept it a secret from her parents until she was 6 months gone and couldn`t hide it any more . She was sent away to a friend of the family , had the baby and then returned home . Her brothers and sisters never found out and it was never spoken of . So it was bad for some even in the sixties , there was still stigma attached to being an `unmarried mother` .

Bellanonna Fri 05-Feb-16 10:10:42

I don't know if anyone remembers agony aunt, Evelyn Home, writing on the back page of Woman. If a reader wrote in saying she was pregnant Ms Home chided her for her selfish act of "anticipating marriage" and she now had to get in touch with the National Association for the Unmarried Mother and her child. How brutal that seems now. If a reader was having marital problems she would describe herself and her husband as "living like brother and sister". How things have changed..