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Misconceptions: Unmarried Motherhood and the Ontario Children of Unmarried Parents Act, 1921-1969

  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Misconceptionsargues that child welfare measures which simultaneously seek to rescue children and punish errant women will not, and cannot, succeed in alleviating child or maternal poverty.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8457-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword The Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History
    (pp. vii-viii)
    R. Roy McMurtry

    This book is a study of the operation of theChildren of Unmarried Parents Act, in the courts and, principally, through the agency responsible for administering theAct, the Children’s Aid Society. It explores the experiences of unwed mothers regulated under theActby examining a large collection of case files, and in the process tells us a great deal about the operation of law at the level of everyday life. Very much a socio-legal history, Lori Chambers’ book also contributes greatly to our knowledge of the history of motherhood and the family, sexuality, and moral regulation. Chambers argues that...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 3-13)

    Illegitimacy is a social construct that historically has sustained the subordination of women. Stigmatized for her ‘sinful’ behaviour, the unmarried mother often also suffered material deprivation. Although only a minority of women became pregnant out of wedlock, ‘their fate was not lost on the wider community of women.’¹ The unwed mother – and her exclusion and poverty – provided an object lesson in sexual ethics. Illegitimate children, like their mothers, were long considered beyond the pale of polite society. As Charlotte Whitton, a key figure in Canadian child welfare policy, lamented in a retrospective discussion of paternity law in 1943, ‘through the...

  6. 1 ‘Such a Program of Legislation’: Illegitimacy and Law Reform
    (pp. 14-32)

    Punishment and ostracism – for both mother and child – were central to the legal designation ‘illegitimate.’ The law traditionally reflected and reinforced the Christian belief that premarital and extramarital sexuality were sinful. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the products of sinful behaviour – children – came to be viewed as innocent and illegitimacy emerged as a subject of concern in the new field of social work. Law reform in Ontario was hastened by the conditions of the Great War. Panic about infant mortality rates, the visible poverty of female-headed households, and a new rhetoric of equality brought censure upon illegitimacy...

  7. 2 ‘Doubtful of Her Veracity’: Procedures and Judgment under the Children of Unmarried Parents Act
    (pp. 33-56)

    The contradictions inherent in the child welfare legislation of 1921 become starkly evident when the case files amassed by social workers are examined. The rhetoric surrounding reform emphasized child welfare and altruism, but the experiences of women in interaction with social workers suggest that judgmental and punitive attitudes towards unwed mothers pervaded the implementation of child welfare reform. Under the procedures mandated by theChildren of Unmarried Parents Act, women were subjected to humiliating interrogation by CAS workers and were required to provide extensive corroboration of their stories of pregnancy. Putative fathers were also interviewed by CAS workers, but they...

  8. 3 ‘I Did Not Bring This Child into the World BY MYSELF’: Stories of Unwed Pregnancy
    (pp. 57-84)

    Pregnancy ‘makes sex visible; it converts private behavior into public behavior,’¹ and unwed pregnancy brought women under the scrutiny and judgment of social workers. This chapter uses case files produced by CAS workers to explore preconceived notions about the etiology of unwed pregnancy that permeated interviews with young women, and to contrast professional misconceptions with the stories told by pregnant women themselves. Case files provide an unusual, if distorted, window into the private lives of young women usually obscured from historical view. This is important because, as Kathy Piess argues, a shortage of primary sources has made ‘uncovering the history...

  9. 4 ‘Best for Our Babies’: The Adoption Mandate
    (pp. 85-110)

    The sexual double standard also reinforced the adoption mandate. As astute critics realized by the 1960s, there was ‘a good deal to condemn in the complex of social sanctions that ... censures illicit pregnancy, while welcoming the product of illicit pregnancy (if a healthy white baby available for adoption).’¹ Healthy white babies were in demand. The CAS was chronically short of money and ‘adoption [was] the cheapest solution’² to the ‘problem’ of unmarried pregnancy. The case files produced under the act disprove the idea that women exercised free and unfettered choice in releasing their infants for adoption. Veronica Strong-Boag argues...

  10. 5 ‘Haunted by Bills’: Lone Motherhood and Poverty
    (pp. 111-139)

    Non-cohabiting mothers who defied the adoption mandate were denied adequate means to maintain their children in decency and were then blamed and punished for the poverty in which they found themselves enmeshed.¹ Combining childcare with paid employment outside the home was extremely difficult. Unwed mothers had little choice but to work for wages, but were then condemned as being ‘bad’ mothers because they were not at home with their children. Wages for women were low, and childcare was expensive, difficult to find, and not always reliable. Given these conditions, it is not surprising that many women relied on friends and...

  11. 6 ‘Known as MRS S’: Cohabitation and the Children of Unmarried Parents Act
    (pp. 140-166)

    The majority of women who attempted to obtain child support through theChildren of Unmarried Parents Acthad lived with the fathers of their children in family units largely indistinguishable from married families. One journalist asserted in 1962 that ‘nobody knows how many Canadians are involved in that type of conjugal relationship which doctrinaire Christians deplore as “living in sin.”’¹ TheChildren of Unmarried Parents Actcase files cannot answer the question of how many Ontario couples cohabited, but they do illustrate an extensive use of informal marriage as an alternative to divorce and remarriage within working-class communities. The cases...

  12. Conclusions
    (pp. 167-170)

    This study of theChildren of Unmarried Parents Actadds new dimensions to our understanding of the origins – and limitations – of the Ontario welfare state. Importantly, the themes that emerge in this study – that unwed mothers were subjected to intense judgment and interrogation in the offices of the CAS, that the procedures mandated by the act were amorphous and amenable to extralegal regulation of young women, that the legislation failed as a child welfare measure, and that the treatment of mothers was sharply differentiated based upon the circumstances surrounding pregnancy – are not evident when reported cases are reviewed. The most...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 171-220)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 221-244)
  15. Index
    (pp. 245-258)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 259-261)