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How the legacy of Victorian times still looms over single mothers

No single mother I’ve known could be called a "shirker" - and yet the discriminatory influence of the 19th century continues.

New Statesman
The Victorian era imposed impossible expectations on women that are still with us. Photograph: Getty Images.

When I was 12 years old, I was told “You’re the man of the house now. It’s up to you to fix the problems here.” My mam was and is a fascinating creature - a combination of every kind of traditionally “masculine” and “feminine” aspect you can think of: naive; strong; offensive; a sensitive soul; racist; loving; fierce; “spiritual”; belligerent; a carer; Darwinian; disabled; and so much more. It was she who told me “It’s up to you...” 

This might seem like a very strange thing for a mother to say to a 12-year-old boy. However, she had her reasons, and they weren’t necessarily all under her control. The Victorian era imposed impossible expectations on women that are still with us. And it’s up to us to put them to sleep.

My mam and her mother never saw eye to eye, and she was sent to boarding school at an early age. My mam only had sixteen years to form a sense of self and a moral compass, after that she was a parent. Being pregnant at sixteen meant the mother that sent her to boarding school shunned her whether or not she was married. Soon after, she was a single mother.

Growing up with her in Wales, my mother maintained that everything had to give the impression of being “respectable.” She’d never let us go to school looking shabby; she’d never let friends come over without a week’s warning; she’d never go drinking for fear of being branded a harlot. This last thing she told me once over a new year’s drink, just us, watching the countdown on TV when I was sixteen. Of course, however much she tried, we often went to school looking shabby.

Even at thirteen, I knew my mam’s moral compass was Victorian. I remember thinking the nuns and her mam must have really done a number on her, but now I know, of course, it was far more than that: there is a lack of feminism in the British political and mainstream understanding of women. It’s been here since the Victorian era imposed radical, impossible expectations on women. And that era isn’t so long ago.

Think about your grandparents. Their parents were Victorians. It is so close, there is living memory of it - it’s under our noses and under our skin. No more so than in popular media. I can’t watch the TV show Little Britain without wanting to kick the TV far enough to smack Matt Lucas’s smug face. It demeans each one of the characters it plays on for laughs - play isn’t even the word, it crushes them for laughs. Its depiction of Vicky Pollard, though, grotesque enough for some to see through, subconsciously influences the way we think about single and young mothers.

J K Rowling has written of how she was treated when she was a single mother on benefits. No single mother I’ve known could be called a ‘shirker’. We can talk about the wonders of the 21st century until we’re lying in tech-landfill, but until we’re another century away from the Dickensian era, there will still be mothers ashamed of their pregnant daughters, telling them they’re not “respectable”. I don’t give a flying fig about “respectability” - the very term is a reinforcement of nepotism and plutocracy - and neither should you. Unless, that is, you like being a Dickensian character.

My mam, however, did and still does - the moral code that’s been forced down your throat is not something you remove from your innards lightly. Especially one that causes such an unconscious misogyny on both sides of the gender divide.

Google’s NGram, which tracks word frequency in literature shows the word “respectability” reached its usage height in 1834 - three years before Victoria became Queen, yet its spectre is seen throughout her reign as something which is so intrinsic, so insidious, that it is “..believed to distinguish the middle class of society” when discussed by Thomas Archer in 1870. While its usage is definitely levelling off in 2013 its Victorian spectre remains. It remains in the way people instinctively react to the term ‘single mother’ or ‘family of six’ on benefits’ in the mainstream media. It remained enough to make my mam worried sick, to instill in her an idea that she was instinctively wrong to enjoy sex, and to stunt her growth at the age of sixteen.

The single mother is seen throughout Victorian literature and neo-Victoriana as shunned and suffering. Correspondence on the matter from the time shows this aspect and a desire to help but also shows the flipside that my mam feared: the opinions that women get pregnant to gain financial benefit, to “trap” a man, and because they’re lazy. There are few jobs harder than being a single mum. I repeat: no single mother I’ve ever known could be called a ‘shirker’.

When newspapers brand single mums on benefits ‘shirkers’ they are reinforcing those Victorian opinions. Not only that, they have little to no idea of how their opinions and the social climate their opinions create affect that family. Some might argue that they know exactly what they’re doing - I couldn’t possibly say - to create a social climate of fear and oppression would be Dickensian.

My mam did, as all mothers do, her best. It was more than enough but she still felt that we needed to fix things. In teenage arguments, she’d always say that she was “going to fix things” and that as the man of the house I should be fixing them too.

I’m 28 now, I was still a teenager in the early noughties. In the beginning of the 21st century in a rich Western country, my ma shouldn’t have felt that need to fix things - she shouldn’t have felt ignominy at her situation but she knew how single mums are branded. The spectre of Victorian values haunts all single mothers. Let’s exorcise it.

Ben Gwalchmai is the author of Purefinder, a satirical novel set in Victorian times that explores themes still all too relevant tody. Published by Cosmic Egg Books from 13 December 2013: http://www.cosmicegg-books.com/books/purefinder