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. From comments already posted underneath the previous instalment on this thread, it appears as though this could be a fruitful avenue of investigation.
1 Pat Thane and Tanya Evans, Sinners? Scroungers? Saints? Unmarried Motherhood in Twentieth-Century England(Oxford, 2012), pp. 24-25,  as cited in comments on the previous instalment on this thread.
2 Matthew Thomson, The Problem of Mental Deficiency: Eugenics, Democracy and Social Policy in Britain 1870-1959 (Oxford, 1998), pp. 299-300.
3 Kathleen Jones, Asylums and After: A revised history of the mental health services from the early eighteenth century to the 1990s (London, 1993), pp. 120-121.
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5 Responses to “An Inconvenient Nuance 4”


  1. 1 Sarah Wise March 25, 2013 at 10:25 am

    I believe that you have accidentally misrepresented my paragraph on pp379-380 in the epilogue of Inconvenient People. I make it very clear that both boys and girls were detained under the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act: in fact, the examples I give on p379 are of two boys and one girl. Far from ‘risking the re-establishment of a gender stereotype’, I state that boys prone to petty criminality were every bit as likely to have been detained as girls, whose active sexuality could be (and was) labelled ‘morally defective’.

    Remember, I do not state in my book that girls and women were sent to mental hospitals for having an illegitimate child; I state that they had ended up in mental hospitals after having been placed in mental deficiency institutions. The latter were intended, in 1913, to operate as a separate system to the facilities for psychiatric care. It doesn’t surprise me that none of your archivist friends has come across such cases in the documentation of psychiatric institutions. These patients were not being certified insane for their ‘moral defects’ or sexual misconduct; they were being transferred across to mental hospitals either because they had become mentally ill while in the deficiency institutions, or because the local authority now chose to allocate its budget to mental hospitals rather than to the mental deficiency colonies to which such patients had originally been sent.

    As for achieving the statistical certainty without which you will not accept that there was any ‘significant’ number of institutionalised mothers of illegitimate children: local county record offices are the places that need to be searched for the surviving records of the Mental Deficiency Committees, which were set up to implement the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act. After 1946 these committees were replaced by county council Mental Heath Committees, and their records, where kept, would also be located in local record offices. So a national sampling survey is possible, in order to ascertain the gender ratio of confined young people, and to try to discover whether there were ‘few’ or ‘many’ females confined under the 1913 Act following the birth of a child out of wedlock.

    Some scholarly work has already been undertaken on individual county record holdings of Mental Deficiency archival material. In Forgotten Lives, Exploring the History of Learning Disability by Dorothy Atkinson, Mark Jackson and Jan Walmsley (1997), the Bedfordshire County Record Office Mental Deficiency Committee files did suggest to the researchers that girls had ‘been targeted for immoral behaviour, particularly sexual misconduct’. (p99)
    The excellent Mathew Thomson (whose 1998 book you cite) worked on the very good run of records at the London Metropolitan Archives. He looked at the London County Council’s Mental Deficiency Committee holdings and sampled 55 cases. He found that although in the younger age group, boys outnumbered girls in mental deficiency certifications, in the 18-25 age category, female certifications outnumbered male by a ratio of 13 to 3.
    Thomson found that women stayed longer in institutions than men. In the case histories of 11 of 13 women over the age of 18, concerns about their sexual conduct had been voiced. Thomson states: ‘Once females had been sent to institutions, they tended to stay for long periods, often until the reassessment of cases in 1959: of 13 female cases, the average length of institutional care was 32.7 years, spent in an average of two different institutions. There were only four male long-term cases.’ (Mathew Thomson, ‘Family, Community and State’ in From Idiocy to Mental Deficiency, edited by David Wright and Anne Digby, 1996.)

    There is another documentary source that would appear to substantiate my statement that there were ‘significant’ numbers of unmarried mothers who were deemed ‘feeble-minded’ and faced incarceration without reprieve. The National Council For Civil Liberties began, in 1947, campaigning on behalf of the 50,000 people who were in institutions as a result of having been certified under the Mental Deficiency Acts of 1913 and 1927. The NCCL had, by 1950, received 200 letters from relatives of the detained, or from concerned members of the public, who wrote to complain that boys, girls, men and women were being unjustly detained under the Acts. In its 1950 publication, ‘50,000 Outside the Law’, the NCCL presented three case histories that it stated were typical of the 200 contested cases. One of the three was an unmarried girl, ‘Peggy’, who had had an illegitimate baby, had been deemed to be ‘feeble-minded’ and placed into a mental deficiency institution. If, as the NCCL states, Peggy’s experience was typical of one-third of the disputed deficiency incarcerations, that to me suggests a ‘significant’ proportion. On page 26 of ‘50,000 Outside the Law’, the NCCL states that the most common cause for the return to a mental deficiency institution following a period of ‘guardianship’ in the community was ‘associating with a member of the opposite sex’. This did apply to boys and men, as well as to females, of course, but it is the possibility of pregnancy that the NCCL goes on to highlight and address: ‘The figure of illegitimate births to mental defectives is often quoted by people who do not realise that . . . no girl certified as a mental defective can produce a legitimate child unless she is clever enough to evade the watchful eye of authority until after the marriage. . .The prevention of normal association inevitably leads to clandestine relations and where this results in pregnancy, further evidence is adduced of the need for care and protection.’

    For what it’s worth, David Hinchliffe, who was Labour MP for Wakefield from 1987 to 2005, and chair of the House of Commons Health Select Committee 1997 to 2005, told the Commons on 25 June 2002 that in his early career in social work he had had ‘personal experience of discharging from hospital people who were deemed moral defectives – women who had spent their lives locked up in institutional care for doing nothing other than, say, having a child out of wedlock. That was a disgraceful and scandalous situation, which we should never forget. I met many others who were totally sane, even though they had spent their lives in institutional care. . . . They were not in any way mad or ill. They were simply people who had a different way of life from the majority of people at that time. All were women. I had never met a male moral defective until I came to this place [the House of Commons].’

    All anecdotal, of course, as are the similar stories told to me by family history researchers who I bump into at local studies libraries and at talks; but no more nor less reliable than your informal polling of archivists, who were asked to supply evidence that would never have appeared in their holdings in the first place.

  2. 2 bethlemheritage March 25, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    Thank you very much for your long and detailed comments. They are greatly appreciated. We aim to encourage as much discussion as possible on this blog. As you note, it’s not possible to retrospectively diagnose or necessarily prove instances of injustice, but it is important to discuss the potential existence of such cases, today and historically.

    The archivist is away until mid April, hence the lack of a more detailed reply. However, I found your comments very interesting. As a historian of late nineteenth-century psychiatry myself, I think the thing that often frustrates me is when people draw assumptions across time periods – for instance, when an individual assumes that, because they have met a person in the 1970s or ’80s who may have been incorrectly incarcerated, that this proves that similar must have occurred (and more often!) in, say, the 1870s. This creates a false assumption of the inevitable progress of humanitarianism – that because something unjust happened in the late twentieth century it must have happened more previously, and it is only today that we are able to recognise injustice.

    This is not only problematic historically, but it can also belittle the experiences people continue to have today, within mental health care and society, while simultaneously perpetuating the association of stigma with mental illness (increasing the subjective divide between the “mad” and the “not-mad”). This is by no means an accusation (I’m afraid I haven’t read your book myself, but it’s certainly on my list), but just a few thoughts I have on the subject that I hope you will find interesting.

    • 3 Sarah Wise March 25, 2013 at 8:12 pm

      That is the very thrust of my book — that humanitarianism, and libertarianism for that matter, with regard to those certified as lunatic were higher up the agenda in the 19th century than they were for the greater part of the twentieth.

  3. 4 Colin Gale April 7, 2013 at 11:18 pm

    Thank you for responding to points made here and elsewhere on this blog. I take the comments you have made in the spirit of an informed conversation about regimes of mental health treatment in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a conversation to which this blog can only make a modest contribution, but one which I trust your book will do much to promote.

    If one of the results of this conversation turns out to be renewed interest, scholarly and otherwise, in the records of so-called ‘mental deficiency’, then I will be very glad.

  4. 5 Sue April 26, 2013 at 5:09 pm

    I am still looking for some figures on the number of women who were detained because they had illegitimate children. So far I haven’t found any, but the fact that the Times found three women in just one institution who had survived into the 1970s (bearing in mind that some women would have been born in the 1880s or 90s) suggests that there may have been hundreds.
    However many there were, it wasn’t enough for the central authority, the Board of Control, who kept chivvying the Poor Law authorities. For example in July 1919 they sent a circular to Boards of Guardians reminding them of the urgency of dealing with “imbecile and feeble-minded women of child-bearing age”. There followed two pages about mentally defective women with several illegitimate children and the burden on the ratepayers, etc.
    The requirement to be feeble-minded as well as having an illegitimate child didn’t provide much protection as feeble-mindedness was such an ill-defined category.
    Even before the Mental Deficiency Act 1913 came into force, the Commissioners in Lunacy were saying that women who had illegitimate children could be certified under the Lunacy Acts.


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