CfP: Unwed motherhood in 18th- and 19th-century history

Unwed motherhood in 18th– and 19th-century history.

Contextualizing pauper and female agency.

CFP for a panel at the European Social Science History Conference, Belfast, 4-7 April, 2018

Organisers: Griet Vermeesch (VUB-Free University of Brussels) and Ariadne Schmidt (Leiden University)

This session deals with the ‘pauper agency’ and ‘gender agency’ of single mothers as a particular lower social group whose experiences, prospects and constrains were decisively shaped by the changing economic, political and social contexts of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In that period, illegitimacy rates dramatically rose from 1 or 2 percent in 1750 to 5 per cent around 1800 to levels of 10 and 20 percent by the mid-nineteenth century. These rising rates and the associated economic, political and social fields of tension link up with profound transformations in European history as a whole, and have for good reason unceasingly captivated historians ever since the 1970’s. 

As part of the research into the causes of this marked rise, the nature of the fates of single mothers has given rise to debate among historians. On the one hand, a number of scholars have stressed the poverty of these women, their marginal and isolated position that became exacerbated by single motherhood, and the way secular and church authorities penalized these women. Recently, however, a number of scholars has shown how single mothers should not straightforwardly be considered victims who incurred the wrath of local governments or neighbours. Some women succeeded at mobilising support. Quite a few single mothers demonstrated legal agency and successfully took legal recourse against the alleged fathers of their illegitimate children. Historians have shown that single motherhood was often not correlated with relative social isolation and marginalization or weakened family control, but that plebeian women rather sought early marriage by taking the risk of prenuptial pregnancy. Other authors have stressed the rise of consensual unions as a new way of forging a family among proletarians, implying that mothers who gave birth to illegitimate children were not necessarily single. The old and new interpretations of illegitimacy, then, link up with current debates on so-called ‘pauper agency’ and ‘gender agency’, i.e. the ways in which the poor and women exercised control over their own situations, made meaningful decisions and manipulated institutions in other to negotiate hardship.

All in all, the range of experiences with unwed motherhood in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe is too diverse to allow for definite labels of either ‘social marginalization’ or ‘agency’. The crux is to establish which contextual factors defined the positive or negative experiences of unwed motherhood. In view of the omnipresence of illegitimacy and the relative ease to identify the birth of illegitimate children in contemporary sources, this topic is suitable for comparative research into the agency of unwed mothers across space, that can subsequently help to establish patterns in diverse pauper experiences. The following topics will be central to the discussion:

–          Which institutional contexts were either helpful or threatening for (sections among) unwed mothers. Are there for instance differences between Catholic and Protestant regions? Or between urban and rural localities?

–          To what extent did unwed motherhood coincide with consensual unions?

–          Which range of strategies did unwed mothers pursue so as to obtain support from either the natural fathers, neighbours, the local community and the authorities?

–          To what extent did unwed mothers take legal recourse as a strategy to gain leverage over natural fathers?

–          What policies did poor relief organizations adopt towards unwed mothers?

If you are interested in participating please send an abstract (200-500 words) no later than April 10 2017 to:

For further information about the European Social Science History Conference please visit :


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