The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1997, Volume 43, Number 3
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Reviews

Single Mothers and Their Children: Disposal, Punishment and Survival in Australia.

By Shurlee Swain and Renate Howe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Photographs. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. xxii + 264 pages. $59.95 cloth.

Reviewed by Patricia A. Washington, Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies, San Diego State University.

Single Mothers and Their Children examines the various “separate spaces” to which unmarried mothers were legally and socially consigned in the Australian colony of Victoria from 1850 to 1975, when changes in national policy ended the legal status of illegitimacy and extended parents’ benefits to mothers who were never married. Despite the geographic and temporal locus of their study, Swain and Renate’s findings are far-reaching and immediate. As noted in the preface, the study may resonate particularly in the U.S., where teen mothers have been targeted for “welfare reform” and sanitized/sentimentalized images of orphanages have been invoked in the interest of preserving “family values.”

In both form and content, Single Mothers and Their Children captures the “lived experience” of illegitimacy. Long objectified, problematized, or simply marginalized, unmarried mothers and their offspring emerge from official records, popular magazines, oral histories, and other sources used by the authors as substantive and individuated human beings. The book’s nine chapters, organized to reflect the human life cycle from conception to adulthood, explore variations on the “disposal and punishment duality” undergirding legal and social sanctions against single mothers. Nowhere is this duality more evident than in Swain and Renate’s discussion of the “disposal” of children born outside of marriage. While described as a “choice” an unmarried mother had regarding the disposition of her child, any course of action she took with respect to her child’s future was heavily shaped by the prevailing ideologies of her time. These ideologies, shifting dramatically throughout the 125 year period under consideration, led variously to tacit approval of infanticide, abandonment, and forced separation in the mid 1800s; low-level government intervention in the face of a declining white birth rate in the late 1860s; and “scientific nursing,” “specialist babies homes,” and almost mandatory adopting out of illegitimate babies in the first half of the 20th century. Despite the particular forms these various methods of “disposal” took, they all involved the single mother’s relinquishment of her child and, thus, satisfied a communal need to exact punishment from women who, regardless of the circumstances of conception, dared bear children without benefit of a male breadwinner and protector.

Overall less attention is directed to single mothers who refused to relinquish their babies or to the children themselves, although they are allocated a chapter each and their experiences appear as subtexts throughout the majority of the work. Importantly, the text concludes with “Empowerment and Resistance,” a chapter devoted primarily to the status of single mothers and their children in Australia today. While serving as a positive counterpoint to the previous 125 years, the experiences of single mothers in modern day Australia demonstrate the staying power of stereotypes and the resiliency of prejudice and discrimination. By making their voices heard and by entering into collective struggle, single mothers have improved their lot in Australia, but many battles remain to be fought well into the 21st century.

A central tenet of Swain and Renate’s book is that single motherhood is a “normative condition” faced by any sexually active heterosexual woman and that the stigma attached to it is largely the result of patriarchal attempts to control women’s behavior. Whether they choose to accept or ignore this thesis, policy makers would do well to reflect on evidence presented in the text that policies of deterrence, such as those practiced in pre-1975 Australia and effected in post-1994 U.S., have little or no impact on conception rates among unmarried women. Moreover, Swain and Renate address the concerns of those responsible for so-called “welfare reform” in the U.S. by presenting data suggesting that government assistance to single mothers does not result in increased birth rates among teenagers. Perhaps the most important lesson of text, however, is that the lived experience of single motherhood is far more textured and complex than our comfortable abstractions and glib pronouncements would suggest.