Posted on October 2, 2009
“And I do think it’s time to address a problem that for too long has gone unspoken, the number of children having children. For it cannot be right, for a girl of sixteen, to get pregnant, be given the keys to a council flat and be left on her own.
From now on all 16 and 17 year old parents who get support from the taxpayer will be placed in a network of supervised homes. These shared homes will offer not just a roof over their heads, but a new start in life where they learn responsibility and how to raise their children properly. That’s better for them, better for their babies and better for us all in the long run.
We won’t ever shy away from taking difficult decisions on tough social questions.”
Gordon Brown 2009
“Concern about the feeble-minded and their multiplying progeny led to the formation in 1896 of the National Association for the Care of the Feeble-Minded. The Association was central to the establishment in 1904 of a Royal Commission. On the basis of the Royal Commission’s recommendations, a joint committee of the Eugenics Society and the Association formulated a Mental Deficiency Bill, enacted in 1913. Only when the feeble-minded were unable to be cared for by relatives or guardians did they become open to incarceration in mental-defective establishments. Such people generally came to a local authority’s attention because they were on the streets ‘without visible means of support’, or were already in institutions. Those in workhouses who were deemed feeble-minded included women ‘in receipt of poor relief at the time of giving birth to an illegitimate child or when pregnant of such child’. As Mary Dendy, leading campaigner in this area, informed the Royal Commission: ‘The first test [of feeble-mindedness] I think is that if a woman comes into the workhouse with an illegitimate child, it should be considered evidence of weakness of mind; there is certainly evidence of lack of moral fibre’. This equation of women’s ‘immorality’ and feeble-mindedness clearly informed the decision as to who was in need of incarceration. Parents or guardians of a defective under twenty-one could petition the local authority; there were cases of young women engaging in underage sex, possibly becoming pregnant, being disowned by their parents, turned out or handed over to the local authority, and defined as feeble-minded by virtue of their immoral activities. In one of Steve Humphries’s recent BBC TV programmes for his series A Secret World of Sex, two women were interviewed who, when young, were sent to mental hospitals under the 1913 Act. Both women had been raped but not believed, and for one of them, Ruth Neale, this had resulted in her bearing an illegitimate child. She is still in mental hospital today. By the time her plight had been discovered years later, after the repeal of the 1913 Act in 1959, she had become institutionalised. There may well have been many such cases, but exact figures are hard to ascertain.
Incarceration for ‘moral deficiency’ was nothing new. So-called ‘wayward girls’ had been locked away in ‘Magdalene Homes’ in Ireland and Scotland for many years, and made to work unpaid in the laundry ‘washing away their sins’. These Homes were run predominantly by Catholic nuns. Lockburn House, the Magdalene Institute in Glasgow, welcomed the Mental Deficiency Act 1913; according to the Institute, many of the young women admitted were ‘hardly responsible for their actions’. Moral deficiency was now being recast in medical terms – the scientific gloss of feeble-mindedness – and eugenics had enabled the transition to a new way of defining ‘waywardness'”
Lucy Bland: Banishing the Beast: English Feminism & Sexual Morality 1885-1914. Chapter 6, Eugenics, the Politics of Selective Breeding and Feminist Appropriation. Pages 241-242