The testimony of women forced to give up their babies for adoption is not only deeply moving. It is an indictment of the way women and children are systematically treated as expendable by a system based on hierarchy and discrimination. It is barely possible to imagine the experiences of teenage girls denied pain relief during childbirth as a punishment for their “sin”. Or the way they were shamed, bullied and guilt-tripped into giving up their babies by the very authority figures, the doctors, social workers and church leaders who should have cared for them.

The scale of this social violence against women and their babies is astonishing. In Canada, some 150,000 First Nation children were forced to attend Christian residential schools so they could be “assimilated”. They suffered physical and emotional abuse and at least 6,000 died. The Canadian government has called on the Pope to apologise after the remains of 215 children were discovered in the grounds of a residential school which housed Indigenous children stolen from their parents.

In Australia, around 250,000 children were adopted. A senate inquiry found that women were lied to, bullied, drugged and physically forced to hand over their babies. The government estimates that as many as one in three Indigenous Australian babies were taken from their mothers between 1910 and 1970, now known as the “stolen generations”.

Some 250,000 women endured forced adoptions in Britain in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. During these three decades British women were continually denied access to new, safe methods of contraception and legal, safe abortions. But women were also denied the right to have children. Their children were stolen from them in brutal procedures which may not have involved knitting needles and the physical barbarity of backstreet abortions, but nevertheless left mental and emotional scares which surely ran as deep. Anyone who watches Davina McCall’s programme which unites people with long-lost relatives gets a glimpse of the enduring trauma experienced by mothers and adopted babies.

Shamed by the state

State institutions and the church organisations had the power to enforce their ideas of who could be suitable parents. These ideas were profoundly shaped by hostility to any sexually active unmarried women, to working class women and, of course, to non-white women. Men faced no punishment or stigma for being sexually active. Shame and humiliation was heaped on women – sometimes by the very institutions that were covering up the sexual abuse of children by their own members. The children of unmarried mothers were turned into commodities and offered as a reward to deserving, respectable couples. Tiny newborns were weaponized in the campaign against immorality which was crucial to remaking the nuclear family.

How could this happen within living memory in a modern, democratic, secular state?

The role of the family

The traditional nuclear family is not really traditional at all. There is a long tradition of extra-marital relationships and babies born outside marriage in working class communities throughout nineteenth and early twentieth century. The nuclear family was largely the preserve of the middle and upper classes. In the mid nineteenth century, women and children were drawn into mills and factories in huge numbers. Their ability to care for a home and children was destroyed. The conditions they endured were so appalling that the consciences of politicians and commentators were pricked.

There were widespread fears that the working class family was falling apart. The state intervened to limit women’s and children’s working hours and conditions but left enough loopholes for exploitation to continue. Radical working class women and men responded by trying build cooperative communes. Others fought for trade union rights, higher pay and the eight-hour day. The family was a better alternative than the workhouse and Victorian ideas of respectability were heavily promoted by church and state. But they never entirely penetrated working class communities.

During the Second World War women entered the workforce in huge numbers. At the peak of the war effort, there were 7 million women engaged in war work, with nearly 2 million women working in metal and chemical industries. Women enjoyed a degree of autonomy albeit within difficult conditions. When the war ended, soldiers were demobbed from the army and the government encouraged women to return to their homes. This domesticity was forced on women who were barred from many professions and industries. Employers operated a “marriage bar” and women were sacked from professions like teaching if they married. By the 1960s, 40 percent of married women worked, but they were routinely sacked if they got pregnant. Employers pushed the idea that women worked for pin money, for a few little extras which meant women could be paid less than men for the same job.

The government reinforced this view by closing many of the state funded nurseries which opened during the war. Welfare payments assumed the existence of a male breadwinner and a dependent wife. The new model of marriage incorporated three stages: unmarried and working, married and a housewife, older and working part time or helping with childcare for grandchildren.

Central to this promotion of the nuclear family was the ostracization of those who did not or could not conform. Gay men were prosecuted for smiling at the wrong man in a park, or because their address appeared in the wrong address book. The repression ruined lives and destroyed reputations. Computer pioneer Alan Turing was found guilty of “gross indecency” in 1952 and committed suicide two years later. While the state and the church were busy destroying the lives of gay men and young women, a political and sexual rebellion was fomenting which would win real reforms for women and gay people in the late 1960s.

Why did so many institutions in a modern state act against single mothers in this systematic way?

Capitalism depends on the production and reproduction of labour. Labour power is exploited by those who own the means of producing wealth. But Labour itself must be reproduced generationally and by daily renewal. There are different ways in which this reproduction could potentially take place, but the privatised reproduction of labour power within the family is deeply entrenched in capitalism.

Socialists deplored the conditions which forced women and children into the mills. They welcomed the entry of women into the labour force as a way to free them from unpaid domestic drudgery, to strengthen their collective power to fight for political equality and ultimately for social emancipation. As Frederick Engels wrote in The Origin of the Family, the Private Property and the State, “The peculiar character of the supremacy of the husband over the wife in the modern family, the necessity of creating real social equality between them, and the way to do it, will only be seen in the clear light of day when both possess legally complete equality of rights. Then it will be plain that the first condition for the liberation of the wife is to bring the whole female sex back into public industry, and that this in turn demands the abolition of the monogamous family as the economic unit of society.”

Many people believed that the entry of women into the workforce would undermine the family unit. Today we know that the family has survived albeit in an ever-evolving form. What has remained consistent is the huge amounts of unpaid labour women, and increasingly men, perform to nurture children and cook, clean, wash and care for relatives.

Socialists and many feminists share a deep hostility to this boring, thankless drudgery. Who has not felt like the Lancashire mill worker, writer and socialist Ethel Carnie when she wrote, “For God’s sake, women, go out and play. Instead of staring round to see what wants polishing or rubbing, go out into the open and draw the breath of the moors or the hills into your lungs.  Get some of the starshine and sunlight into your souls, and do not forget that you are something more than a dish washer – that you are more necessary to the human race than politicians – or anything. Remember you belong to the aristocracy of labour – the long pedigree of toil, and the birthright which Nature gives to everyone had entitled you to an estate higher than that of princes.”

We might have washing machine and vacuum cleaners, but Lenin’s description of housework written 100 years ago still rings true for women today, “Notwithstanding all the laws emancipating woman, she continues to be a domestic slave, because petty housework crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades her, chains her to the kitchen and the nursery, and she wastes her labour on barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve-racking, stultifying and crushing drudgery”. Lenin argued that we need an all-out war on petty housekeeping. We still need that war and a war on the repressive attitudes to sexuality which buttress the family structure.

Is it all in the past?

Women are primarily responsible for making the family work, for caring, supporting, juggling work and childcare and fulfilling all the multiplying demands of parenting. Simply making ends meet is a constant worry for thousands of working class women. Under capitalism, the only alternatives to the family are private institutions which exploit our needs for profit or state-run institutions which fail to meet even the basic physical and emotional needs of those who rely on them. Young working class women are still treated as expendable. In the care system thousands of children are placed in illegal or unregulated homes while government funding for child addiction services has been slashed. The young women groomed by gangs in the widely publicised grooming cases were vulnerable to abuse because they were not believed or treated with compassion by state institutions which were supposed to protect them.

Single mothers are periodically singled out for scapegoating by Tory government. The myth of feckless teenage girl who gets pregnant to get a council flat is no longer a staple of right-wing rhetoric. Benefit policies continues to discriminate against single mothers. Single women with at least one dependent child made up 85 percent of those affected by the government’s benefits cap, which limits benefits to £20,00 a year. Last year, the children’s commissioner accused the government of “demonising” single parents because thousands are worse off under changes to universal credit. The picture is the same for those in work. Squeezed by rent hikes and unaffordable childcare costs, the poverty rate for working families has reached a record high. Poverty rates are highest among families with three or more children, and are up more than two-thirds over the past decade. An NHS report released this month revealed that 700 child deaths a year could be avoided if rates of social deprivation were reduced.

The family system offers the promise of fulfilment and security, but that promise can rarely be fulfilled and comes at the price of marginalizing, penalizing and delegitimizing those who live differently. Forced adoptions were seen as ‘normal’ by the very institutions which today normalise and legitimise discrimination against single mothers and millions of children living in poverty. We must resist this normalization, and never forget the cruelty with which the family was rebuilt and stabilised. Socialists always seek to broaden people’s choices, to increase their freedom and their ability to make genuine choices about how to live their lives. Ultimately, we want real democratic control over how we organise our lives and collective responsibility for childcare so we can all experience the personal freedom simultaneously promised and denied by capitalism.

  • Judy Cox is a teacher in East London. She is studying for a PhD in women and the Chartist movement at Leeds University. She is the author of The Women’s Revolution: Russia 1905-1917 (Haymarket, 2019) and Rebellious Daughters of History (Redwords, 2020). Both available from Bookmarks the Socialist Bookshop