Mums the word

05.12.134:45 AM ET

Want to Keep a Secret? Tell Your Mother.

For centuries, mothers have been the best keepers of the ultimate secrets—those skeletons in the family closet.

Women—it is often said—can’t keep their mouths shut.  They talk more than men and, according to one study, keep a secret on average for only 32 minutes before breaking the confidence.  The search for an explanation behind female chattiness has even led to the discovery of a protein that supposedly explains volubility. Most damningly, or so it has been believed through the ages, women’s loose tongues make them unreliable in matters of state and diplomacy that demand discretion. 

But when it comes to the most common form of secret—the family secret—those stalwart male secret-keepers tend to go missing. After eight years of researching family secrets, I’ve learned that if you want to bury a secret, tell your mother. It is women who minister to the skeletons in the closet. That’s the shadow side of care-taking, the invisible labor that has to be hidden. Over the centuries, mothers have presided over regimes of secrecy that David Petraeus could only dream of.

Take the most common family secret of all: illegitimacy. Most often it was to their own mothers that unmarried and pregnant girls confided their plight. In poorer families, illegitimate offspring would frequently be absorbed into the mother’s kin network. Grandmothers and, less frequently, aunts posed as mothers.

In middle-class families with the resources to hide a daughter’s pregnancy, the girl’s mother took charge of arranging her grandchild’s adoption. “Last night I slept through the whole of the night! A thing I have not done for a year past,” reported one grandmother to the adoption agency after it placed her 16-month-old grandson.

Adoption—both the relinquishment of children and their placement, often in secret and even illegally—was a field of endeavor that women dominated. Celia Ward (a pseudonym), the well-heeled wife of an executive of English Steel, hatched a plan in 1920 to take the youngest female infant the adoption society had available and to proceed to a convalescent home to complete the ruse. “I intend to do everything in my power to introduce the child as my own to everyone (except of course my husband).”

Like Ward’s husband, men may have been consulted, but managing stigma and shame has been women’s metier. Look, for instance, behind the closed doors of the Normansfield Institution, founded by Dr. John Langdon Down, for whom Down’s syndrome is named. In the hundreds of boxes of letters that document how mentally disabled children became disappeared people, hidden from sight for a lifetime, there is hardly a father to be seen.

Elizabeth Scott-Sanderson was 1 year old when her mother delivered her to Normansfield in 1921. The youngest of six daughters, Elizabeth suffered a series of fits when she was seven months old, and could hardly hold up her head. The family doctor could find nothing physically wrong with the child, but thought it a hopeless case of mental impairment, and advised immediate institutionalization. When Elizabeth’s mother wrote the institution, she was desperate to find a place for her baby to go.

Over the 20 years that followed, Mrs. Scott-Sanderson proved a reasonably attentive correspondent by the standards of the era. She wrote the institution regularly for details about her daughter, and visited her once or twice a year for the first decade she was at Normansfield, and sporadically thereafter. Elizabeth’s father, by contrast, came to see her only twice, and wrote a single letter to the institution about her care.

If secret-keeping could be repressive, it could also serve to protect. Mothers tenaciously kept mum—even in the heat of the courtroom. When the notorious cross-dressers Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton were put on trial for the “abominable crime of buggery” in 1871, it was Boulton’s mother, Mary Ann, who came forward to defend her son. She had provided Ernest and his friends with dresses and altered them to fit. Now she appeared in court to insist upon her son’s innocence. Boulton’s father (or so the story went) had been called away on urgent business to the Cape of Good Hope.

Before the era of gay liberation, homosexual men were more likely to come out to their mothers than to their fathers. They often assumed that their mothers either already knew or would be more sympathetic, willing to preserve their confidences. “Very good to his mother” was a euphemism for a homosexual.

There was nothing innate about women’s proclivity to keep family secrets. Such discretion is no more biological than women’s supposed tendency to gab. Secret-keeping has been a pragmatic strategy of collective defense, a means of shielding black sheep as well as the family’s reputation. Here, where security was paramount, women were the gate-keepers and the wall-builders. There’s a reason why family scandal was called dirty laundry. Like the real-life stuff, mothers washed it at home.

Deborah Cohen is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History at Northwestern University. Her new book is Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day, published by Oxford in the US and by Viking Penguin in the UK. Her website is and she tweets from @DeborahACohen.