In The Family Way: Illegitimacy Between The Great War and the Swinging Sixties by Jane Robinson, book review

Christian misogyny may underlie the shameful treatment of single mothers
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The Independent Culture

Women's bodies exist in the public domain, to be judged, gossiped about, peeped at. Why? In the West, such moralistic voyeurism goes back to the Fathers of the early Christian Church, their desire to police sexuality. They feared and hated women's maternal power, since birth eventually resulted in death. They preached that virginity was the better option: it conferred heavenly immortality. Sex was tolerated inside marriage, with a good dash of marital chastity recommended.

Such attitudes may seem strange to us nowadays, but they linger, visible in the treatment meted out to "immoral" women down the centuries. In the mid-20th century, the period examined in this book, pregnant married women wore primly buttoned-up maternity smocks designed to hide the shameful evidence they'd ever had sex. If they were pregnant and unmarried, the shame was so much greater that the pregnancy had to be concealed altogether, if possible, the woman vilified and the child sent away. Not until 1987 was the concept of illegitimacy abolished. The 1913 Mental Deficiency Act, enabling unmarried mothers to be labelled as "moral imbeciles" and incarcerated in lunatic asylums, was not repealed until 1959.

Following in the footsteps of socialist and feminist historians such as Raphael Samuel, Alison Light and Sheila Rowbotham, Robinson has worked to give back a voice to those not traditionally allowed one. Determined "to tell other people what it was really like to be or to bear an illegitimate child during the cloyingly polite years between the Great War and the so-called Swinging Sixties", she has interviewed over 100 subjects, interweaving personal stories with a chronological narrative of historical facts. We learn about unmarried mothers, resented as an economic drain on the community, being sent to the workhouse, and about some of their children being cared for by 18th-century philanthropists such as Thomas Coram. Subsequent centuries saw the Salvation Army and Dr Barnardo's Homes doing their best. Some children were shipped off abroad, along with former sex workers and other criminalised individuals.

Taken together, the individual stories of secrecy and enforced separation form a powerful testament to the hypocrisy and cruelty of our culture. Some of Robinson's subjects, she discloses, were courageously speaking out for the first time about their experiences. Her book fits into modern notions of story-making in memoir being therapeutic.

The voices remain muffled, however. Robinson, deciding that her interviewees must remain anonymous in order to avoid "confusion and the possibility of distress", rarely quotes their accounts directly but mainly retells them in her own words. The rawness and originality of personal vernacular becomes dull, smooth.

A second problem occurs with Robinson's failure adequately to indicate her use of reported speech. For example, mentioning the 19th-century charitable notion of an unmarried mother being "as much sinned against as sinning" Robinson remarks: "There were always going to be vicious mothers who transgressed because they were mentally and morally defective, but now there was room for manoeuvre." Whose are the thoughts about viciousness? Robinson does not say. Sometimes, as when she discusses women's sexual behaviour in wartime, she is open about her own moral position: "The loneliness of a wife whose husband is in the Forces can be crippling. That did not excuse infidelity then any more than it does now." Rather delightfully, she quotes the thoughts of that well-known sociologist Barbara Cartland: "It was the white women who ran after the black troops, not vice versa."

With a nod to our own myths about single mothers getting council flats, she tells us that when conscription for women was introduced in 1941, "pregnancy provided some with a means of escape; a weapon of self-defence. It is clear that some women actively sought to take advantage of their lovers for sex, and never mind the consequences." So were they trying to get pregnant or not?

Big questions stalk this text. The legal term for an unmarried woman's child was filius nullius: no-one's son. Why was paternity important? Why was marriage important? Men's need to pass on property to their heirs? In contrast, Robinson describes some penniless, loving fathers yearning to care for their illegitimate children but being forbidden by church and state to do so.