Monday, March 21, 2016

Plight of the Unmarried Mother in the late 19th and Early 20th Century

Considering the moral superiority over men required to be possessed by women during the Victorian age and into the 20th century, a woman’s reputation was a delicate matter. (See my article from last month.) Having a child outside of marriage was considered shameful to the point that a family might abandon the young woman in this situation, whether or not the pregnancy resulted from an act of her own volition or not. The young women often bore the shame alone and her family by association.

There were several ways this could be dealt with. A pregnant daughter was often sent away to bear the baby in secret. She could be sent to a relative or perhaps a home for unwed mothers and possibly other fallen women. Sometimes the young woman would be allowed to come home and supported by the family. Her child would be raised by her parents as one of her siblings.

However, towards the turn of the 20th century and beyond, attitudes changed. Girls were pressed to release their illegitimate children for adoption. Numerous homes for unwed mothers in several countries were reported to have coerced the young mothers, giving them little choice. They were encouraged to leave their pasts behind and not even share their real names, so as not to embarrass their families. While it gave them an opportunity to start anew, these young women were in a sense stripped of their identities and ordered to leave the past behind rather than deal with it.

Some blamed the judgmental tone of religious organizations for this treatment. However, even the Ideal Maternity Home in Canada, a non-religious based facility discouraged such things and babies were taken away and even sometimes sold. Mothers might be told their children had died and not allowed to see them. The profit the founders made from the Ideal Home became a scandal and it was eventually closed. Whether or not their babies lived their mothers often had to stay for another six months to a year to pay off the cost of their room and board.

Religious organizations like the Salvation Army did their best to provide options, as did some private Christian maternity homes. One such example was the Open Door in Omaha, Nebraska, founded by a woman by the name G. W. Clark. Mrs. Clark wrote in her annual superintendent's report: The door of our "home" has been opened wide the last year to receive beneath the shelter of its roof, those who so sadly stood in need of our ministration. Many times has the sad, appealing face of the heart-broken girl, appeared at our door, the poor victim of her own folly and one man's licentiousness and cruelty, more sinned against than sinning, driven forth from heart and home, no place under God's heaven, no shelter. What is there for her to do? Where to go, if it was not for the Open Door. (

The Open Door operated from 1892-96 until Mrs. Clark's eyesight wore out and the funds dried up. This caring soul looked at the home as a place to minister to others as you would to Jesus. Her compassion contrasted with the judgmental attitudes of the day, which often held a double standard with the regards to the father.

The Crittenton Missions also sought to provide for unwed mothers in a more compassionate way. I will share more about the Crittenton Missions . . . next month!

Kathleen Rouser was so enthralled with books, she wanted to write stories before she could read them. A past homeschooling mom and mild-mannered dental assistant, Kathleen writes from her home in Michigan, where she lives with her husband of 34 years, who not only listens to her stories, but also cooks for her. And let’s not forget her resident muse is a sassy tail-less cat named Lilybits.

Her debut novel, Rumors and Promises, from Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas, is coming out in April, 2016. It's the story of an unwed mother, who is an heiress on the run with a child in tow, trying to start over in a town that doesn't like secrets! Connect with Kathleen at her websiteFacebook author page, Twitter  and Pinterest.


  1. It always seemed so unfair that the woman had to suffer embarrassment and humiliation for an act that might have been out of her control. But that was the reality back in the 19th Century. I'm glad to know there were good-hearted people who cared enough to help those women and their children.

    1. It was so tough for them for sure. The double standard per young
      women vs young men was a strong factor. My character in
      Rumors and Promises, Sophie, is the victim of an act out of her
      control, yet suffering the consequences. It is heartening to know
      some people truly cared about the plight of these women and
      children for sure. Thank you for your comment, Vickie.