Have you seen the news today on CBC? For those who have not, here it is….
Talk about taking us back to the caves…or, in this case, back to Poor Houses.
If a woman went into a poor house to have her child and was not married, her child would be raised in the poor house (she could leave if she had a family willing to take her back) until the child was old enough to be sent out to a farm or family to earn a living as an indentured servant. That age could be anywhere from the age of 5 to the age of 7 years old.
Back in “the day”, a woman’s marital status was extremely important when receiving ‘assistance’ from the municipality or the province if she had a baby. Until 1972 (that is my lifetime; I remember 1972) a ‘unmarried mother’ was not permitted to receive any form of financial assistance. Although some poor houses still existed, they were mostly for the very elderly and those with physical and mental barriers. An ‘unmarried mother’ would be pressured into giving up her child for adoption as there were no supports to help her with raising her child.
And let us never forget The Ideal Maternity Home in Chester, Nova Scotia, where unmarried mums went in secret to have their children born out of wedlock. These women were shamed and humiliated if their pregnancy was found out in their communities so they paid a great deal of money to go to this home, to be used as a servant, and to have their babies either sold to couples who had the money to purchase their babies or, if the baby was of an obvious mixed race or physical disability, to slowly die and be buried in wooden butter boxes.
In my own personal experience, when I applied for social assistance back in the early 1980s as an ‘unmarried mother’ with my first daughter, I did not want her 25 year old father in our lives. I described his departure ~ “He split when the egg did.” I did not name him on her birth certificate. The man did not want anything to do with his child or myself and left when I told him I was pregnant. I was not about to force him to pay attention if he did not want to be with us. Neither myself nor my daughter needed that in our lives. We needed love and acceptance in our lives; not some loser who wanted to run from responsibility. (Over time, he left two other children and their mother on their own to live on social assistance even though he was married to their mother. He paid $1 a year in child support. Eventually he married again, had three more children and is a ‘respectable’ business man in Halifax now.)
The Minister of Social Services at the time, Edmund Morris, tried to use that information (or lack of) to publicly humiliate me when I criticized his outdated social assistance policies in an op-ed I wrote for a local newspaper. (Things such as forcing unwed mothers to be subjected to humiliating questions and comments from case workers; not letting single fathers access social assistance.) Morris refused to back down from trying to shame me as an “Unmarried Mother”. Morris even had the blessing of then Premier John Buchanan. (I shall always remember his response when asked by reporters if he was going to make Minister Morris resign over his divulging of confidential information on me. “No I’m not going to make him resign over THAT” he sneered. Nice to know what he thought about women!)
With the help of several women who had gathered to raise money so that I could take Morris to court (the Justice Department Minister should have initiated that legal procedure but refused to do so as it was initiating a legal procedure against his peer; I had to do it privately as a citizen) I took Minister Edmund Morris to court and, shock of all shocks, Justice Peter Richardson very reluctantly found Mr. Morris GUILTY of releasing confidential information on me from my social assistance file. Justice Richardson quoted my marital status, in his judgement, as something I should be ashamed of. I’m wasn’t then;. I’m still not.
Whoever thought up that form for ‘unmarried mothers’ needs to re-evaluate their ethics, morals and think about what decade they are presently in. I have always described myself as the last generation of women who was shamed for being a mom and not being married. And we do not need to return to that. It’s taking us back to poor houses and the treatment of people based on gender, race, marital status, abilities, religion. We need to move forward, not backwards.