Sinners? Scroungers? Saints? Unmarried Motherhood in Twentieth-Century England

Pat Thane*, Tanya Evans

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Book/ReportBookpeer-review

89 Citations (Scopus)


This is the first attempt to describe the real lives of unmarried mothers, and attitudes to them, in England from the First World War to the present. We focus on England because the legal position, and other circumstances, of unmarried mothers were often very different elsewhere in Britain. It uses women's own life stories, among many other sources, to challenge stereotypes of the mothers as all desolate women, rejected by society and by their families, until social attitudes were transformed in the 'permissive' 1960s. It shows the diversity of their lives, their social backgrounds, and how often they were supported by their families, neighbours, and the fathers of their children before the 1960s, and continuing hostility by some sections of society since then. It challenges stereotypes, too, about the impact of war on sexual behaviour and about the stability of family life before the 1960s. Much of the evidence comes from the records of the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and Her Child, set up by prominent people in 1918 to help a social group they believed were neglected, and which is still very active today, as Gingerbread, supporting all lone parents who need them. Their work tells us not only about the lives of those mothers and children who had no other support but also another important story about the vibrancy of voluntary action throughout the past century and its continuing vital role, working alongside and in cooperation with the Welfare State to help mothers into work among other things. Their history is an inspiring example of how, throughout the past century, voluntary organizations in the 'Big Society' worked with, not against, the 'Big State'.

Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages240
ISBN (Electronic)9780191741838
ISBN (Print)9780199578504
Publication statusPublished - 20 Sept 2012


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