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An Inconvenient Nuance 4

Blog readers may be interested in (and may themselves wish to add) a little more comment on the “trope of the unmarried mother institutionalised for life in a mental hospital” which, according to the Archivist’s recent review of Inconvenient People, “has considerable traction in the popular imagination”, and to which Sarah Wise gives credit (with respect to the twentieth century at least), yet “without providing statistical evidence in support”.

In Sinners? Scroungers? Saints? Unmarried Motherhood in Twentieth-Century England, published last year, Pat Thane and Tanya Evans write:
In January 1920, there were 2,783 unmarried mothers in workhouses in England and Wales. Some particularly unfortunate mothers found themselves consigned to mental hospitals. The Mental Deficiency Act, 1913, allowed local authorities to certify and institutionalise, generally unmarried, pregnant women who were deemed ‘defective’, at this time of heightened panic over ‘racial degeneration’ and eugenic concern about the perpetuation of ‘unfit’ genes. ‘Mental defect’ was believed by some to have caused the women’s ‘immorality’…The numbers are unknown and probably few, but some sad victims were discovered in mental hospitals as late as 1971, having been there since the 1920s.1

This passage bears an accidental resemblance with the one cited in the last instalment of the Archivist’s review of Inconvenient People, with the exception that it contains no implication “that significant numbers of women were ‘imprisoned’ for ‘having a child out of wedlock’”. Rather the reverse - “the numbers are unknown and probably few”. Thane and Evans acknowledge a government source for the January 1920 workhouse numbers, and a secondary source - Matthew Thomson’s The Problem of Mental Deficiency: Eugenics, Democracy and Social Policy in Britain 1870-1959 - for the rest of their paragraph. Yet this is what Thomson writes on the page they cite:

Lack of thorough research has led to a series of confusions in the historiography. When we go beyond the rhetoric of debate, it is clear that the popular myth that the Mental Deficiency Act was simply a tool to control young women with illegitimate children is a gross caricature: such women—if they could also be proved to be intellectually defective—were a critical concern, but in total, women did not outnumber men disproportionately. Men were just as prone to be certified because they transgressed accepted gender roles as were women: in the male case, this usually involved unemployability or habitual criminal behaviour.2

As well as supplying the same kind of gender corrective for twentieth-century admissions that Sarah Wise offers for those of the nineteenth century, Thomson here provides a hint that a wider perspective on the motivations behind these admissions is necessary (a hint that is seemingly lost on Thane and Evans, who prefer the uncomplicated language of victimhood at this point). When we read that in January 1920 there were 2,783 unmarried mothers in workhouses in England and Wales, we may be inclined to assume that they were there by virtue of, and as a punishment for, "having a child out of wedlock". But this does not necessarily follow. An alternative explanation is at hand - that by January 1920, it had come to bureaucratic attention that 2,783 unmarried mothers in England and Wales were destitute and in need of public protection, the workhouse system comprising the only means of such protection at that time (inadequate as it undoubtedly was for this purpose). Likewise, hearing of the admission of an unspecified number of unmarried mothers to mental hospitals in the 1920s - “many” according to Wise, more credibly “few” according to Thane and Evans - we may be tempted to jump to the conclusion that, in these cases, marital status and admission must have been causally linked. At this point we are in need of a dose of Thomson’s caution. “Such women…were a critical concern”, he writes, “if they could also be proved to be intellectually defective”. His proviso alerts us to the possibility that the admission of destitute, vulnerable and (to use the language of the time) "intellectually defective"unmarried mothers into mental hospitals might have been principally motivated by their vulnerability and "mental deficiency", rather than by their marital status. This possibility merits consideration, not least because (unlike the “popular myth that the Mental Deficiency Act was simply a tool to control young women with illegitimate children”) it would explain why only an unknown (but tiny) fraction of unmarried mothers “found themselves consigned to mental hospitals”, a fact borne out by the range of other experiences described in Thane and Evans’ book.

Mention of the operation of the Mental Deficiency Act in this connection further illuminates comments previously made concerning the overwhelming absence of unmarried mothers in the admission books of twentienth-century mental hospitals. Alongside the existing network of "lunatic asylums" (later renamed "mental hospitals") that had been built across England and Wales in the wake of the Lunacy Acts of 1828, 1845 and 1890, a separate set of institutions grew up in response to the Idiots Act of 1886 and the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913, charmlessly (yet with descriptive rather than stigmatising intent) termed "idiot asylums".3 Those judged by the state to be "idiotic", "imbecilic" or "feeble-minded" would be far more likely to be admitted to the latter than to the former. If it is true that the recovered documentary traces of unmarried mothers in mental hospitals have so far been few and far between, perhaps the next direction of the kind of “thorough research” which is recommended by Thomson (and increasingly possible, now that the Mental Deficiency Act is 100 years old) should be the surviving medical records of these latter institutions.