By John Gee
There was a quiet, shy girl who was in the same class as me most of the time I was in secondary school in Britain. One day, she did not come to school and after that, she never came again.
There was a skinny girl with blonde hair and a lively sense of humour. One day, during a lesson, I glanced out of the classroom window and saw standing near the school gate with the deputy headmistress and her mother. That was the last time I saw her in school.
Both were excluded from school because they were pregnant. It seemed very unjust to me. Their education had been abruptly cut short; they were very unlikely to have a second chance. It had taken two to produce the pregnancy, but I never heard of a boy being excluded from school for fathering a child nor, at that time, of an older man losing his job for the same reason.
It was another case of double standards according to gender: a girl or woman who has sexual relations while single (whether it leads to pregnancy or not) risks being branded a “slut” and hounded as a morally degraded individual, while a boy or man who acts in the same way often attracts the admiration of his male peers and a collective shrug from society.
I met both those expelled girls some years later. The first had married her boyfriend and they were raising their child together. The second was unmarried and working full-time to support herself and her child, who had started at school and was looked after by a relative in the couple of hours between coming out of school and the mother returning from work.
Both of these young women were like many others in their position: caring and conscientious mothers, self-sacrificing in the love they gave to their children.
Often portrayed in the mass media then and later as irresponsible and immoral, the daily conduct of most single unmarried mothers argued otherwise. On reflection, I can’t help wondering whether the humiliation and penalisation of those women represents a channelling of outrage by some sectors of society against sexual activity by unmarried females in general. Deprived of a target by its comparative invisibility most of the time, this outrage finds an easy mark in a pregnant woman, the evidence of her supposedly disgraceful behaviour visible for all to see.
Most sexually active girls and single women in developed countries have knowledge of contraception and use it; it is often those who are comparatively inexperienced sexually that lack this knowledge. Hardly any wish to become pregnant; they have some awareness of the consequences, but, perhaps because of a boyfriend urging her to “show she really loves him”, or simply because she got carried away by her feelings, it happens. As far as most of society is concerned, she has committed a sin, or a moral lapse, but what she is then put through may take a greater toll on her than if she had broken the law by stealing or by assaulting someone. For those offences, she might be punished and then helped to resume normal life, all forgiven, but for the lapse of giving way to her emotions, the course of her life is permanently changed for the worse and for every friend and relation who stands by her, there is always a self-righteous person on hand ready with a jibe or a whisper.
Some argue that giving a single mother the same social benefits and support as married mother will encourage more girls and young women to become single parents, but this seems questionable: how many women would truly choose to go through childbirth, care for a baby and raising a son or daughter without the emotional or financial support of a partner. And if some women do become pregnant as a result of a momentary lack of judgement or restraint, is it likely that the thought that she would not obtain social support if she had a baby would pop into her head at the crucial moment and stop her?
The sensible and humane response to single motherhood would be to resolve that what’s done is done; what’s important now is that both single mothers and their children should be able to get on with their lives without penalties and with the support available to other parents and children. They have enough to contend with in life as it is, without deliberately disadvantaging them.