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Response to Review of Sinners? Scroungers? Saints? Unmarried Motherhood in Twentieth-Century England

We are grateful to Dr Davis for her favourable review. She raises some issues that merit further discussion. It would, of course, as she suggests, have been desirable to have been able to take account of yet more of the experiences and opinions of unmarried mothers and their children, and to contrast their life-stories in the later 20th century with those earlier. If sources existed we would have done so. But, as we stress, such lives were

shrouded in secrecy before the cultural shifts of the 1960s. Only a few mothers and ‘illegitimate’ children made their life histories public and they were generally confident, well-known people such as Catherine Cookson. For the recent past, oral histories might have been possible, and we include information from a few of these that we conducted, some of them anonymous at the request of the interviewee. However, to gain a usefully representative set of life stories of a group of women whose great diversity we do our best to demonstrate would have been too large a task given the resources and time available. Concerning Dr Davis’ comment that it would have been good to hear the mothers’ responses to John Bowlby’s work, we faced the same problem. We focus, rather, on the more readily accessible critical responses of social workers to Bowlby, as has not previously been done, in order to challenge the frequent assertions that they were strongly influenced by him.        

Dr Davis rather understates the range of personal sources we used, which include a previously unused, very detailed, Mass Observation diary by a relatively junior civil servant, transcripts of interviews conducted by Elizabeth Roberts and Dennis Marsden, as well as drawing on the often quite detailed accounts in the archives of the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child/ One Parent Families/ Gingerbread, and on a number of memoirs and biographies. Her comment that our claim to be ‘”the first book to describe the real lives of unmarried mothers” … seems overstated’ is puzzling. We do not claim that our work is definitive, but we know of no other work that gets closer to such a description.

We do not, of course, claim that our view that the cultural revolution in the 1960s was not a sudden cataclysm but was slowly emerging through previous decades is quite new, though it is surprising that in pointing this out Dr Davis does not refer to the excellent work of historians such as Hera Cook, Claire Langhamer and, most recently, Stephen Brooke in his Sexual Politics (2011), who make a similar case.

We certainly did, and do, fail to penetrate the mindsets behind the extraordinary outpouring of vituperation against single mothers in the early 1990s by Conservative politicians such as Peter Lilley (notoriously intoning at the party conference that he ‘had a little list …of young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list …’) and John Redwood, journalists such as Melanie Phillips, even BBC Panorama, and the author of a remarkably vicious cartoon in the Sunday Times which we reproduce. Maybe the explanations will be clearer to future historians. We did our best to help them by describing this unpleasant set of episodes. We do not suggest that these views were new, rather that they were expressed unusually forcefully at this time by influential figures.

We believe, and hope, that we have opened up some new understandings of the lives of unmarried mothers, and about family life more generally, over the past century and posed new questions which will stimulate further research on the history of the fathers, which is still more deeply hidden than that of the mothers, and the children, and uncover still more about the life-courses of the mothers.

Pat Thane and Tanya Evans