Abstract

This article examines the bastardy clauses of the New Poor Law of 1834 which made illegitimate children the responsibility of single mothers. These clauses reveal a fundamental shift in thinking about poverty and welfare from paternalism to Liberalism. Supporters of the clauses imagined both men and women as free agents economically responsible for themselves. Moreover, it was a Liberal project--largely influenced by Thomas Robert Malthus and disseminated by the 1834 poor law Report from His Majesty's Commissioners for Inquiring into the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws and such novelists as Harriet Martineau--asserting that poverty arose from overpopulation and that women more so than men were responsible for determining demographic growth. In the context of Liberal thought, single mothers and their out-of-wedlock children represented the worst violators of independence and individualism, and the centuries-old welfare provisions offered them among the worst obstacles to a free market. Radical critics perceived in the bastardy clauses a challenge to traditional notions of protecting society's weak and of allowing the working class the "right" to receive parish and charitable aid. Furthermore, critics recognized that the sexual double standard inherent in the new clauses revealed the ideology of Liberalism: the Liberal system magnified rather than minimized the advantages enjoyed by society's enfranchised and the disadvantages experienced by society's weakest members.

Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 131-156
Launched on MUSE
2000-02-01
Open Access
No
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