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.

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

The Victorian era imposed impossible expectations on women that are still with us. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt