In Episode Six of Downton Abbey, we learn Edith has made the choice to have her baby. Unless she manages to track down Michael Gregson (and unless he can get a divorce from his current wife), she faces the undesirable prospect of becoming an unmarried mother in 1920s Britain.
As I wrote last season, Edith has been representative the new modern woman who appeared following World War I. She started working in London (for her newspaper column) and socializes outside the home. She knows how to drive and conducts a fairly independent and flexible lifestyle. Edith might now also represent the unmarried mothers who were stigmatized and ostracized in Great Britain during and after the First World War.
Unmarried Mothers in Interwar Britain
The problem for most unmarried mothers in early twentieth century Britain was two-fold: a difficult financial burden, especially if family money wasn’t available to help support the mother and child, and social ostracization due to the shame they brought on their families.
Thane and Evans, authors of Sinners? Scroungers? Saints?, have done extensive archival research on the subject and write that “unmarried motherhood became a public issue during the First World War… due to the increase in ‘illegitimate’ births” (p. 13). It wasn’t that attitudes toward premarital sex changed to account for the increase (though frowned upon, premarital sex had been occurring before the war). Rather, some women found themselves unexpectedly alone and pregnant after their men were called off to war and never returned.
The public spotlight on the issue did not change the attitudes towards these women. As Thane and Evans point out in their introduction, “mothers and their illegitimate children were disgraced, abandoned, cast out by society, even by their own families… until the 1960s” (p. 1).
The question now is whether Edith will become a “desolate [woman]…carrying the costs of a one-off mistake” (Thane and Evans, p. 3) or rise above the perceived shame of her situation to support her child.
Options for Edith
A lot of existing research on illegitimate children focuses on the experiences of the working-class. There is a lack of information on what happened to upper-class women who became mothers before marriage. Thane and Evans (2012) cite the ambiguity of census data as a reason. Many unmarried middle- and upper-class mothers lived with their parents, so they were noted on surveys as daughter and grandchild, with no explanation of their connection or marital status. Furthermore, this situation would be something that families would want to keep secret. Indeed, if the math worked out, the grandmother could claim the child as her own, which might quell gossip and avoid family shame.
With the aid of some examples cited in Thane and Evans’ work, I’ve come up with a few options for Edith:
- She could marry Michael Gregson. Then the baby would be seen as ‘legitimate’ and scandal could be avoided. This is a bit difficult, however, with Gregson’s disappearance.
- If Gregson does not reappear, or cannot get divorced, she could raise the child at Downton with the support of her family. Indeed, it is even possible that Lady Cora could claim the child as her own; I think she is young enough. There might be idle gossip, but the official story could hold.
- Edith could hide the pregnancy from her family, go abroad or elsewhere in England to give birth, and give the child up for adoption. “Better-off families could seek discreet adoptions,” write Thane and Evans (p. 39).
- Finally – again with support and resources from her family – she could even “move to a new district and claim to be a respectable widow”, an option that, according to Thane and Evans, would be accepted without too many questions (p. 33).
If the unmarried mother in question did not have money or a supportive family, her life was very difficult in the 1920s. In her book, Singled Out, Virginia Nicholson writes that unmarried mothers got little sympathy or assistance. As a result, very few of them chose to raise a child on their own and either gave the child up for adoption or had an illegal abortion. No wonder Edith is worried about her family’s reaction – if she decides to raise the child as an unmarried mother, she will depend on them for support, financially and emotionally.
The National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child
In the early twentieth century, public resources were reserved for married or widowed mothers; unmarried mothers without their own financial resources had to rely on charity and often ended up in workhouses. Efforts were also made to educate women about sex and birth control, a step forward from a half century earlier (Brooke, 2006). However, these efforts were primarily done to help married women.
There was one invaluable resource for unmarried mothers: the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child (referred to as National Council here). It was the first organization in Britain to focus specifically on unmarried mothers. Now called Gingerbread, the National Council was founded in 1918 by Lettice Fisher. While the National Council offered some individual advice and assistance to mothers in need, that was not its primary focus. In its initial form, the organization focused on legal reforms to increase financial support from absent fathers and end discrimination against illegitimate children. According to the Gingerbread website, the National Council also worked to seek alternatives to workhouses for destitute unmarried mothers and their children.
Not surprisingly, securing adequate funding for the organization was a big challenge, as the subject of their work was quite unpopular. In addition to seeking legal reforms, the National Council spent quite a bit of time in the interwar years attempting to educate the public and remove prejudices against unmarried mothers and their children (Thane and Evans, 2012).
In the 1920s, Edith’s situation would be in no way enviable. Society may have been modernizing, but she would find that the modernization did not stretch to an acceptance of unwed mothers. Thane and Evans (2012) point out, somewhat shockingly, that complete legal equality between legitimate and illegitimate children was not achieved until 1987! Furthermore, the fact that Gingerbread continues its work today, almost a century later, is indicative of how difficult it has been to remove the stigma against single parent families.
What do you think Edith will do? Leave your thoughts in the comments below. (No spoilers please!)
Brooke, S. (2006). Bodies, Sexuality, and the “Modernization” of the British Working Classes, 1920s to 1960s. International Labor and Working Class History, No. 9, Working-Class Subjectivities and Sexualities, pp. 104 – 122.
Nicholson, V. (2008). Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived without Men After the First World War
New York: Oxford University Press.
Thane, P. and T. Evans. (2012). Sinners? Scroungers? Saints?: Unmarried Motherhood in Twentieth-Century England
. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Image: Retrieved from DowntonAbbeyWikia.com