Unwed Mothers: A Changed Taboo

Sexual taboos change from one generation to the next. What is considerable to be an unspeakable and shameful event in one decade is no longer a taboo-related issue many years later. One such example of a changed taboo is unwed mothers.

In America, Great Britain and Ireland, unwed mothers in the first half of the 20th century were something society frowned upon. Young women who were pregnant and unmarried were shepherded off to convents or “homes” where their pregnancies would be hidden from view and the babies’ births handled in discreet quiet. The majority of the babies who survived their births in these environments were forcibly taken from their mothers and placed for adoption or, in some cases, sold for profit.

The book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, written by former BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith and published in 2009, chronicles the experience of a young unwed mother who suffered through the forced adoption of her firstborn in the 1950s followed by decades of unsuccessfully searching for her child. Her emotional journey eventually resulted in this woman’s personal mission to change adoption laws in Ireland.

This book, which I have not yet read, was the basis of the movie Philomena, which was released in the United States in 2013. I watched this movie over the weekend and felt inspired to share the story of Philomena and her firstborn.

Earlier this year, I read The Last Summer by Judith Kinghorn, in which one of the main characters struggles emotionally with being an unwed mother who was forced to give her love child up for adoption. Although this book is a work of fiction, the scenario of an unwed mother losing her child to adoption is an echo of real life experiences of multitudes of young women and their children throughout Great Britain in the early to mid-20th century.

Here is the story of one of those echoes. (Warning: The remainder of this blog contains movie spoilers.)


Philomena Lee was born on March 24, 1933, in Ireland. When she was six-years-old, her mother died of tuberculosis. Her father, a butcher by trade, kept her brothers at home and sent his three daughters to attend school at a convent. After completing her formal Catholic education, Philomena went to live with her mother’s sister, Kitty Madden.

Philomena became pregnant at the age of 18. Her child was the product of a one-night stand that took place at a county fair in Ireland. Philomena told Sixpence that that she had just left convent school where she had been since her mother’s death, the father of her child had bought her a toffee apple and that she did not know “a thing about the facts of life.” Philomena, like many girls and young women of her time, simply was not taught how pregnancies occur or anything at all about sex, especially unprotected sex.

After her pregnancy was discovered, Philomena was sent by her family to the Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, one of the oldest cities in Ireland which developed around the ancient monastery of St. Cronan (translation: a well-established Catholic city with a very prominent Catholic heritage and belief system).

Young women in Philomena’s condition found themselves with few options. Many abbies housed a Magdalene Laundry, an “asylum” devoted to the rehabilitation of “fallen” women into society, or a Mother and Baby Home, where unwed mothers were hidden away by shamed families. In reality, these laundries and homes were essentially prisons in which the young female inmates were forced to work for the benefit of the Catholic Church without pay and without contact with the outside world for years before gaining their freedom. The Abbey depicted in the movie portrays the situation of girls being stuck there, tirelessly working away years of their youth.

In the movie, Philomena tells Sixsmith she worked seven days a week in the laundry for years before leaving the convent. Philomena gave birth naturally and without painkillers to her son, Anthony Lee, on July 5, 1952, while residing at the Abbey.

In the movie, Anthony was breech, which means he came into the world bottom-first in a birth that was potentially fatal to both him and his mother. During Anthony’s birth in the movie, a nun named Sister Hildegard told the other nuns in the birthing room that the breech birth was Philomena’s penance for her carnal acts and so be it if her child died during childbirth.

Today, if a baby is breech and born in an industrialized nation, the baby is usually delivered via Cesarean section to reduce the risk of fetal and maternal harm.

Philomena, in the movie, was allowed to see her son for just one hour each day. At the age of 3, Anthony and a younger child named Mary McDonald, born at the Abbey to another unwed mother, were both adopted by an American couple, Marge and Doc Hess of St. Louis, Missouri. Philomena’s last memory of her son was watching him through the bars on a locked gate as he was being driven away from the Abbey. Philomena and Mary’s mother were not allowed to say goodbye to their children; they simply were taken away from their mothers during the 1955 Christmas holiday without a word to the mothers.

The nuns at the Abbey forced their unwed mother residents to sign contracts that essentially gave the nuns their children for the purpose of being adopted by married couples. In addition, the mothers agree in the contract to “undertake never to attempt to see, interfere with or make any claim to the said child at any future time.”

The villagers in Roscrea speculate in the movie’s storyline that the nuns sold the unwed mothers’ children born at the Abbey for 1,000 pounds (roughly $1,550 U.S. dollars in 1955) each to Americans. In Ireland at that time, the common practice of the Catholic Church was to sell the children of unwed mothers to rich Catholic families in America, so this speculation is not wild. The villagers go on to claim the nuns intentionally set fire to all usable adoption records, except the contracts the mothers signed, to help cover up any potential embarrassment to the Catholic Church over these transactions.

Philomena told Sixsmith that she fought against signing the Abbey’s adoption contract, but relented because she had no other choice in the matter. Her father, shamed by her out-of-wedlock pregnancy and the subsequent birth of her bastard child, did not want her back and thus would not pay to release her from the Abbey.

Her time at the Abbey had come to an end after the adoption of her son, so the Catholic Church set Philomena free by sending her to work at one of its homes for delinquent boys in Liverpool, England. Philomena would eventually train as a nurse, a career she worked in for several decades, and would marry and have a legitimate daughter named Jane.

One Christmas, Philomena told Jane about Anthony and about how she had tried in vain several times throughout the previous decades to find him. Jane introduced Sixsmith to her mother and asked him to help them find Anthony. Sixsmith and Philomena worked together for five years in the search for Anthony Lee, which would take them halfway around the world.


Anthony Lee’s adoptive parents renamed him Michael Hess. He grew up Catholic in the Midwest, graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1974 and earned a law degree from George Washington University. It is rumored that Hess made three unsuccessful trips to the Abbey in hopes of discovering the identity of his birth mother, but that the nuns there simply would not tell him her name. Michael’s last wish was to be buried at the convent where he was born in the hope that his mother would eventually find him there. Michael never learned Philomena was his mother nor did he ever know before his death, in August 1995, that he was taken forcibly from her.

Michael served as deputy chief legal counsel to the Republic National Committee before eventually becoming chief legal counsel to President George Bush, Sr. Michael was not publically open about being homosexual, which was a virtue frowned upon by the Republican Party at the time he worked for the organization. He was HIV positive when his own political party was cutting spending on HIV research. His early death was due to AIDS.

In 1993, Michael flew for the last time to the Abbey and begged the nuns there to give him information about his mother. He was a dying man and still the nuns would not bend on their refusal to tell him his maternal origins.


Philomena never met her grown son as he had died years before Sixsmith had learned his identity. Instead of succumbing to even deeper grief, Philomena used her and her son’s story to shed light on the subject of forced adoptions of the children of unwed mothers by some ecclesiastical authorities in Ireland during the 1950s. After Sixsmith published his book about Philomena and her son, Philomena began speaking in public about the hot-button topic of forced adoptions.

When asked why she kept the secret of her son’s birth quiet for so long, Philomena told Sixsmith that she felt shamed and that shame has kept her silent for almost 50 years. The Catholic Church’s opinion of Philomena and other unwed mothers was that “single mothers were moral degenerates who could not be allowed to keep their children.” Ireland bowed to the Catholic Church and ceded responsibility for the unwed mothers and their children to the Catholic nuns.

“At the time young Anthony Lee was born, I discovered that the Irish government was paying the Catholic Church a pound a week for every woman in its care, and two shillings and sixpence for every baby,” Sixsmith wrote in 2009. (In 1952, one pound was worth around $2.79 in American dollars.)

Sixsmith further revealed in his reporting, “The girls were allowed to leave the convent only if they or their family could pay the nuns 100 pounds. (In 1952, this would have been around $3,002 American dollars.) It was a substantial sum, and those who couldn’t afford it – the vast majority – were kept in the convent for three years, working in the kitchens, greenhouses and laundries or making rosary beads and religious artefacts, while the church kept the profits from their labour.”

From 1765 to the late 1990s, an estimated 30,000 women in imprisoned in institutions such as the Abbey and deprived of life. The last Magdalene Laundry in Ireland closed in 1996, but it was not until 2013 that the atrocities that occurred in these “homes” was officially recognized by the Irish government. The Prime Minister of Ireland, Edna Kenny, issued an official apology that year to survivors of the Magdalene Laundries.

There have not been any formal apologies given to the unwed mothers and their children who lived at the Mother and Baby Homes throughout Ireland, where a great many forced adoptions took place for decades. Philomena Lee founded The Philomena Project to petition the Irish government to “implement adoption information and tracing legislation” to reunite these mothers and their children.


Today, unwed mothers (now called single mothers) are just another “normal” in the societal blend of 21st century America. We mercifully don’t snatch children from women based on their marital status alone. This illustrates how societal values, and thus taboos, can evolve and change and help reshape our world into an even better place to live and to love.


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