'Unfortunate objects': London's unmarried mothers in the eighteenth century

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Unmarried mothers in eighteenth-century London captivated the public imagination in unprecedented ways. Using the petitions for admission into London's Foundling hospital, this article argues that unmarried mothers did not have to conform to a model of female sexual passivity, of 'respectable illegitimacy', in order to receive charitable relief in the eighteenth-century metropolis. The governors of the Foundling Hospital could be indiscriminate in the petitions that they passed. This did not mean, however, that petitioners were unaware of how best to represent their case in their attempts to find a home for their child. But throughout the eighteenth century, 'proper objects of charity' included petitioners with many different stories to tell. These were determined by the concerns and questions of the Foundling Hospital's authorities and were not unproblematic representations of poor women's mental maps, but this piece emphasises that the circumstances of their lives rarely required embellishment to convince others of their necessity. Economic need rather than shame was the all-important criterion in the admission of a child into the Foundling Hospital. Women's accounts of their lives provided overwhelming evidence that they, rather than the fathers of their babies, were the 'unfortunate sex', but they were neither hopeless nor without desire. The language of the petitions was intimately related to the everyday lives of London's poor. What framed most of the accounts presented by petitioners was not seduction, shame or secrecy but misfortune.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)127-153
Number of pages27
JournalGender and History
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2005


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