Did Social Change Movements Matter?
Social movements are usually started by ordinary people intent on changing – institutions they find intolerable. Ironically, subsequent generations often appear to be free riders, enjoying the benefits of earlier struggles and unconsciously or (to the dismay of the pioneers) consciously downplaying the relevance of struggle in the first place. Did the achievements of the civil rights and women’s liberation movements influence the choices made by the single mothers I studied? From their perspective, what were the critical events or markers that encouraged them to act? Most women in this study could not articulate the societal changes that made single motherhood possible for them. Even though they stood on the shoulder of feminist activists and in the wake of many social movements, they struggled to explain the sociopolitical context in which they became mothers. More often than not, these women described their lives within the shifting ground of the politics of family, a culture war over family structure, and the place of women.27 However, these women rarely detected feminism’s involvement, for example, in that battle. In general, individuals credit their own agency, their internal world, for the decisions they make, often blind to the broader context in which they operate. Consistent with this, the women in this study were reluctant to credit feminism as anything more than a vague mandate “to be whatever you want to be.” Abby, thirty-eight years old with a two-year-old, noted: 
Said Penny, age thirty-nine with a preschooler she adopted after mourning the death of an infant son:
Everyone in my life knew what I was up to [trying to become pregnant]. And I wouldn’t have been able to do that, I think, without a pretty strong feminist base that I could do stuff like that… to be able to express my feelings about how I live my life and to be able to assert myself.
In Penny’s mind, feminism enables women to think outside of imposed restrictions. The ability to become a mother outside of marriage could be embraced as part of an altered consciousness, a new identity. Motherhood, a cultural mandate these women do not defy, does not have to be shelved for lack of a partner. It can be pursued on different terms.
At die same time, these single mothers did not view themselves as trail – blazers, much less as revolutionaries. Rebecca, age forty-five with a four-year – old, put it this way:
I feel tremendously fortunate in that I am not a groundbreaking kind of person, and I didn’t have to do this thing that even ten years ago would have been a lot harder, or fifteen years certainly.
For the youngest women in this sample, feminism was like fluoride in the water: it was just there. They did not think much about its contribution to their lives; neither did they fret about a backlash limiting their opportunities and rights (to abortion, for instance). As Naomi, who was in her early thirties, explained:
I don’t know how it has affected me. I grew up in an era in which it was already out there. My youngest and oldest sisters say they are not feminists, but of course they live a very feminist life.
Despite the varied understanding of the context of single motherhood, there is an absence of feminist discussion about motherhood in general. This means that what is considered “appropriate” mothering remains limited in important ways by social and cultural norms, many of them unspoken and unexamined. Trish, forty-eight years old with a child almost twelve, felt as if motherhood itself is a taboo topic, not politically palatable to discuss. She commented that as much as things have changed, motherhood itself remains unaltered and unscrutinized. Women who wish to adopt alternative models of parenthood, such as part-time parenting, face significant barriers. Trish, who shared a child with two dads in an arrangement that worked well for her, felt that her engineering of motherhood was greeted by skepticism even among women with the best intentions:
At the beginning I really felt very alone about that. People were really skeptical; they couldn’t believe it was going to work. I felt like people were waiting for the