A Home For Outcasts Sheltering Arms Provided Brief Refuge For Unwed Mothers

Posted: December 22, 1993

Scores of elderly Philadelphians probably have no idea of the anguish, humiliation and obstacles their mothers endured just to give them life.

Dana Barron knows the details.

The 28-year-old University of Pennsylvania graduate student has pored through thousands of case files of poor, unwed mothers who sought help in a hostile world from a social agency called Sheltering Arms.

From 1882 to 1949, the organization, sponsored by the Episcopal Church, provided a home for unwed women during pregnancy and for a time after childbirth. It continued to assist unwed mothers in other ways into the 1960s.

There may be thousands of people in the Delaware Valley whose first stop after the maternity ward was the Sheltering Arms home. The home was at 717 N. Franklin St. until 1924, then at the Ravenswood estate, at Gypsy and School House lanes in Germantown, from 1924 to 1949.

Professional social workers replaced a religious-oriented staff in the 1920s. They created thick files on about 4,400 women and their babies, providing 55 boxloads of human drama. Barron has mined these files for the past 18 months for her doctoral dissertation, which could turn into a book.

A history major and Harvard graduate, Barron says, "These were stigmatized women. They were thrown out of school forever. They lost their jobs; the employer assumed they were bad women . . . The moral stigma never attached to the male. He wasn't to blame. Even if she was raped, she was blamed."

Those who arrived at Sheltering Arms were always poor, often abandoned by both parents and the man who had gotten them pregnant and held in general disgrace.

"One of the stories that touched me was from the 1930s. The woman was the daughter of a Russian immigrant who was very abusive and a heavy drinker."

"There was no way she could tell her father," says Barron. "All the women in the family were afraid of the man. So the mother and daughter worked to deceive the father."

Somehow the woman's time at the shelter was concealed.

"She couldn't afford to leave home. The family needed her income. She made $7 a week as a servant. The agency paid for a neighborhood family to care for the baby."

"One night, the baby got sick," says the researcher. "The boarding father came to the woman's house to tell her. The mother and daughter intercepted the man and made him pose as a salesman to fool the father. These are the kinds of things the women had to endure."

Another tale that haunts Barron involved a 19-year-old woman from East Falls who was put under tremendous pressure by social workers to identify her baby's father.

"I guess she had a reputation for being a loose woman," Barron says. ''She knew if she named the man in court, he'd haul in all his buddies to say they had sex with her. It's exactly the strategy defense lawyers use against rape victims today."

Barron's dissertation will focus on 100 cases dating from 1920 through 1960.

The records - along with those of several other social agencies - are stored at the urban archives section of Temple University's Paley Library. However, Episcopal Community Services still controls the files and Barron is pledged not to use real names.

In its early days, Sheltering Arms sought to "reform" these "fallen women" and taught domestic service - where an unwed mother might expect to work and care for her child at the same time.

While some gave up the child for adoption, the agency sought to help women keep children and often placed ads for a "woman and child" seeking lodging.

Barron says the social workers grilled the women in the initial interview on such matters as sexual habits and moral values.

"They visited the women's homes and noted things like 'mother not properly dressed.' They expected the home to conform to certain standards and clients to behave a certain way," says Barron.

The economic realities for unwed mothers were harsh even after the federal ''aid to dependent children" program was adopted in the 1930s.

"Each state administered the program. Most wouldn't help illegitimate children until 1960," says Barron. "There was a clause about a 'suitable home.' Being an unwed mother made you unsuitable."

The shelter was racially integrated but only a limited number of beds were reserved for non-whites. "The oldest woman I found was 42. The youngest was 13. In general the women were between 18 and 23," she says.

"I found myself rooting for these women," adds Barron. "The world in general was hostile to them."

While the files are not open to the general public, Episcopal Social Service, will provide information to those researching their roots.

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