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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How student survivors of the Florida school shooting are using social media to demand change

“As teenagers, we know how to use social media and we know how to take advantage of it.”

Before 14 February 2018, Delaney Tarr used Twitter to share pictures of dogs, screenshots from her favourite Netflix shows and drawings by artists she admired. After a gunman murdered 14 of her classmates and three of her teachers at a high school in Parkland, Florida, the 17-year-old's online presence changed. Since then, her Twitter profile has been made up of moving tributes to her dead classmates, strongly worded arguments with Fox News presenters, and a hashtag: #NeverAgain.

“When the tragedy happened, we realised that this was how we were going to reach as many people as possible,” Tarr told me when we spoke on the phone.

“Even if you look at the current president of the United States, he uses Twitter in a way that is unprecedented. And as teenagers, we know how to use social media and we know how to take advantage of it.”

Tarr is one of hundreds of Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School students using Twitter to make their voices heard. As well as #NeverAgain, they have set up crowdfunding pages to pay for marches and memorials and organised a national school walkout day (planned for 20 April).

During the attack, many students tweeted about what was unfolding in real time – with 14-year-old Aidan Minoff posting pictures from underneath the desk where he was hiding. “My school is being shot up and I am locked inside. I’m fucking scared right now,” he wrote in a tweet shared more than 20,000 times. Many more students uploaded videos of the shooting to the messaging app Snapchat.

In a tweet (since deleted) sent on the day of the attack, right-wing pundit Mark Dice criticised the students. “Someone tell Generation Z kids that in the event of a school shooting, they should call 911 instead of posting video of it on Snapchat,” he wrote.

This ridiculous comment was informed by the assumption that social media is inherently frivolous. It isn’t. “I’ve seen all the criticism and I’ve seen some valid points saying that it is too sensitive to see those videos,” Delaney Tarr said, referring to Snapchat clips showing bodies on the floor, pools of blood, and students cowering in fear. “But, ultimately, they’re giving you an experience that nobody has had before.

“You’re hearing the gunshots that we heard, you’re seeing the blood that we had to see. It is something that will haunt you just as it is haunting all of us.”

Nikhita Nookala is a 17-year-old MSD student who tweeted from her hiding place: “im in a closet”. “It was the only thing I could do at the time,” she told me over email. Along with her terrified peers, she received frequent Snapchat updates from her friends elsewhere in the school. “Images were the only thing that we had as proof that our friends were safe,” she told me. “And now those same images can be used as evidence in court against the man that killed our friends.” On the day of the shooting, Nookala also sent a tweet to Donald Trump. “Why was a student able to terrorize my school mr president,” she wrote in reply to Trump’s message offering “condolences” to the victims.

More than 660,000 people have seen her tweet, while five million watched an online video of a SWAT team evacuating a classroom at the school, posted online by a pupil’s sister. In it, one child’s hands can be seen trembling uncontrollably. Will any of this make a difference to America’s gun control debate? “Ultimately, I think people are more willing to change when they can see the damage that has been done,” Delaney Tarr said. Nikhita Nookala agreed: “Having our voices heard is the most important thing we can do right now.”

Snapchat videos will undoubtedly provoke emotions in a way that the traditional media cannot. But some of the posts are hugely affecting not only because they show bloodied bodies, but because they remind us the victims are children, using emojis to illustrate their pain.

“My teacher died,” reads part of a text message exchange between two brothers trapped in the school. One brother screenshotted the texts and gained 150,000 retweets when he later shared them on Twitter. “Don’t do anything,” one brother wrote to the other. Then: “Don’t DO ANYTHING”. After getting no reply, he sent another message: “You understand?”. Then another. “Matthew.” Another: “Please answer me.”

To read these texts is to feel the moment-by-moment agony of the students. This wouldn’t be possible without the mobile phones that allowed them to communicate and, later, to share their fraught exchanges.

It could be argued that these messages were too raw and personal to share widely, manifestations of a society obsessed with personal revelation and putting everything online. I disagree: sharing these texts is an inspirational act that allows the entire world to feel the students’ pain.

On 24 November 2017, thousands of people were caught in a moment of collective panic at Oxford Circus in the West End of London. The Tube station was evacuated and police swarmed the streets in response to what turned out to be a false terror alarm. My boyfriend’s offices are located just off Oxford Circus; we used Facebook Messenger to stay in contact during the chaos. Because I didn’t share our exchanges on social media, they are ours alone. But by taking their most intimate messages and posting them online, the Florida high school students can shock us out of our usual desensitised response to all-too-common American mass shootings.

“We’re not going to be quieted,” Delaney Tarr said, explaining that Twitter will give students such as her a voice after the news cycle has moved on from the latest act of gun violence. “We’re not going to be silent. We’re going to keep fighting for this until there is some change.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia