by Professor Patricia M. Thane, visiting Professor in History at Birkbeck, University of London, and the author of a number of works including ‘Sinners? Scroungers? Saints? Unmarried Motherhood in Twentieth-Century England’, a history of Gingerbread based on archival material.
The organization now called Gingerbread was founded in 1918 as the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child (NC). It was formed by men and women concerned about the treatment of unmarried mothers during World War 1, who were blamed for their ‘loose morals’ causing increasing ‘illegitimacy’, in a way that fathers were not. Though moralists refused to believe that pregnancy often triggered marriage rather than the other way around, the probable cause of the ‘illegitimacy’ they so disapproved of during wartime was due to men dying or being away on active service. The shame, poverty and exclusion long heaped on unmarried mothers and their children intensified.
The NC aimed to help mothers support their children and give them an equal chance in life with others. For a century they gave unparalleled protection to thousands of mothers. Their archives tell us much about women’s lives.
Fortunate mothers might live with their parents, their child perhaps believing grandparents were parents and mother a sister, though how frequently is unknown. It could be traumatic for children to discover the truth, as happened to rock musician Eric Clapton; others didn’t discover until adulthood and valued family support, like Nobel prize-winner Sir Paul Nurse.
It was hard for other mothers to find or afford a home. They might suffer workhouses or harsh hostels run by religious organizations who enforced adoption. This was far less common than in Ireland and vigorously opposed by the NC who worked hard to help mothers avoid adoption, including many refugees from Ireland.
They supported voluntary organizations and local authorities to run residential homes providing childcare while mothers worked. Landlords/ladies often rejected them. NC sought tenancies and foster-parents to care for children while the mother worked, or live-in jobs, mainly domestic service, where they could live together.
Among their many other activities, with other women’s organizations NC used their newly won votes to persuade parliament in 1925 to double (to £1) the weekly maintenance fathers could be required to pay, and in 1926 to legalize adoption for the first time to control sometimes corrupt, abusive activities.
In the next war ‘illegitimacy’ again spiked, for similar reasons, fuelling similar panic. But health and welfare services improved for unmarried and married families. The Government encouraged relatives to support pregnant unmarried servicewomen and war workers. When they could or would not, it subsidized local authorities and voluntary organizations, including NC, to provide support and accommodation. NC helped, among others, mothers doubly stigmatized by having mixed-race children by overseas servicemen, protecting them from discrimination.
After the war unmarried mothers were better supported by the new welfare state, providing maternity benefits, improved local authority services and adequate if not generous means-tested benefits, and NC received a regular government grant. A major role became advising mothers on accessing benefits, services and legal advice. It still helped mothers find work and training, which became somewhat easier with a wider range of work. NC advised MPs on legislation legitimizing children whose parents married after their birth, strengthening adoption law and introducing shortened birth certificates omitting parental marital status.
In the 1960s like many voluntary organizations NC became more professionalized, less dependent on volunteers. It launched media campaigns for a universal ‘fatherless child allowance’, for positive representations of unmarried mothers and their children, to raise funds and inform mothers of their rights and sources of help. Pregnant unmarried students were still expelled from universities. NC was increasingly concerned about the growing numbers of divorced and separated parents seeking support.
Consequently in 1973 it changed its name to National Council for One Parent Families (OPF), but they recognized that unmarried mothers needed most help and had fewest sources of support. Single parents increasingly spoke up for themselves. In 1971 Tess Fothergill, a separated mother, founded Gingerbread, a support group for divorced and separated mothers, which later included unmarried mothers.
NC campaigned for official investigation of the plight of the growing numbers of single parent families. Labour appointed the Finer Committee which in 1974 delivered a comprehensive report emphasizing their low incomes, difficulty in finding good affordable housing, well-paid work or childcare. Labour then introduced improved benefits, statutory maternity leave and rights to council housing which OPF and Gingerbread demanded.
In the 1980s the Thatcher governments, echoed by the tabloid press, promoted the ‘traditional family’, attacking ’young single girls who deliberately become pregnant …to jump the housing queue and gain welfare benefits’. There was no evidence for this, as OPF demonstrated, but single mothers were persistently denigrated, while divorce, co-habitation and births outside marriage soared. Thatcher couldn’t block the Family Law Reform Act, 1987, for which OPF had long campaigned, giving all children equal legal rights and removing the term ‘illegitimate’ from legal and official discourse. But poverty rose and housing became still scarcer following Thatcher’s sale of council houses. OPF ran courses on work training, welfare rights and financial management.
One of Thatcher’s last acts before losing office in 1990 was the Child Support Act, designed to make ‘feckless fathers’ support lone mothers and children rather than the benefit system. It was an expensive failure partly because not all fathers deserved blame, nor could always afford maintenance. Attacks on single mothers continued, famously Peter Lilley, Minister for Social Security, intoning at the 1992 Conservative party conference, that he ‘had a little list’ of:
Benefit offenders who I’ll soon be rooting out…
Young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list.
And dads who won’t support the kids of ladies they have kissed.
Under New Labour from 1997 official, though not all popular, vilification stopped. They helped mothers find work or training, supporting OPF courses. OPF collaborated with government to achieve real, if limited, improvements. Childcare and work conditions improved. Poverty declined and benefits rose. In 2007, OPF merged with Gingerbread with which it worked increasingly closely and in 2009 took its name.
Despite their ceaseless efforts, under Conservative-led governments since 2010 opportunities have declined again, ‘austerity’ cuts have especially hurt single mothers and poverty has risen, while ‘family breakdown’ is blamed for crime, unemployment and protest. Gingerbread has an unparalleled history of support for persistently marginalized people but, sadly, it is as much needed now as through the past 104 years.