One Sunday evening about fifteen years ago I got a call from the local psychiatric hospital, the clergyman who was chaplain was away and I was on call. I found myself in a rarely visited wing of what had once been a huge institution built in Victorian times. A lady had been diagnosed with an aneurism and they thought a chaplain should be called.
I arrived on the ward and was told by the nurse in charge that the lady was well and stable at the moment, but that day’s diagnosis in the local hospital meant that her future was uncertain.
I found a gentle little lady in her 80s who was very pleased to see me and who chatted amiably. I called at the nurses’ office as I left the ward and asked whether there were family who should be contacted. They knew of none. The last time the lady had had a visit from anyone other than the chaplain had been 1982, some ten years previously. The lady had been in the hospital since the 1930s – they weren’t sure why she had been admitted.
At our prayer group this evening we reflected on the story of Jesus sending out seventy-two disciples to tell people the Good News. It prompted me to pick up Ann Morrisy’s book Journeying Out, where I encountered this story:
My first employer in the Church was a Council for Social Responsibility. Just five years before I began working for this department it had operated under the name of ‘Moral Welfare’, and before that it was called ‘Rescue and Preventative Work’.
The origin of this work, 100 years before, was to rescue the young women who drifted into town from the countryside and who, in their desperation to gain food and shelter, might resort to prostitution. So the Church set up training schools to prepare these women to go ‘into service’ in local ‘well-to-do’ households or train to work in the new factories that needed more and more workers. Within ten years of establishing these projects a new issue emerged – the task of responding to those women, who despite being rescued, trained and placed in service, became pregnant. So, alongside the training schools, homes were set up where the woman (or girl) could give birth and from where her child would be adopted. As soon as she was free of her baby, the woman would return to the household where she was in service. However, if while ‘in service’ the woman became pregnant again then she risked being categorized as morally defective. To become pregnant a second time served as proof of her immorality.
In the filing cabinet in my office were the old volumes, full of casenotes, relating to these immoral women. The organization was not only lawfully empowered to label women, but to then condemn them to a hospital for the morally defective for the rest of their lives.
The seductive and physical power of the ‘gentleman’ in the household in which the woman was employed as a servant would never have been considered or even ‘seen’. Not least, because the very definition of ‘gentleman’ precluded the possibility of him forcing his attention on a young woman. The credence given to Eve as the route by which sin entered the world would have added to the common sense view that a young woman from the lower classes would be prone to moral defectiveness.
Those writing the case notes took their task very seriously, but it is unlikely they would have perceived the outworking of hegemony in relation to what they were doing. Or, if they did, it would be unlikely that they would have had the courage to speak out against the practice that they implemented.
Was the little old lady one of those classified as ‘morally defective’? Did she suffer sixty years incarceration because no-one would have suggested that men were as sinful as women?