Category Good Enough Mothering?


Lurking in the shadows of this discourse about lone mothers and the underclass is an issue that we believe must be addressed head on: the issue of human agency, or in this instance, specifically, women’s agency. Right-wing ideologues, conservative politicians and anti­feminists lay much of the blame for the perpetuation of the underclass through lone motherhood on the agency exercised by women; they have no trouble suggesting that women make choices to have children outside marriage, and without the support of a man. Defenders of lone mothers in recent debates, however, particularly the poverty lobby and feminists, have found it much harder to acknowledge women’s agency.7 In challenging the individualizing of the problems associated with lone motherhood, their focus has been on the material, structural constraints that operate on poor, working-class women. In order to refute the claims of writers such as Murray and Halsey, they seem to have thought it necessary to emphasize the lack of choices open to women with few educational qualifications in run-down inner cities. They implicitly suggest that agency is something reserved for the well – off and educated, and that while small numbers of women may be choosing to become lone mothers, most lone mothers are the ‘victims’ of their social circumstances.

This position is made explicit by Lash (1994) in his discussion of the processes of individualization and reflexive modernization that can be discerned in contemporary western societies. He criticizes the thesis advanced by Beck (1994) and Giddens (1994) that agency is progressively being freed from structure and that individuals are increasingly engaging in the reflexive construction of their own life narratives, less hindered by tradition and structure than at previous moments in history. His challenge to Beck and Giddens takes the ‘single mother in the urban ghetto’ as the prime exemplar of the limits of reflexive modernization:

[J]ust how ‘reflexive’ is it possible for a single mother in an urban

ghetto to be? Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens write with insight

on the self-construction of life narratives. But just how much freedom from the ‘necessity’ of ‘structure’ and structural poverty does this ghetto mother have to construct her own ‘life narratives’?

(Lash 1994:120)

While we would not wish to suggest that women living in inner-city ‘ghettos’ can choose to escape structural poverty (but nor, probably, would Beck or Giddens), we do believe that there are women living in situations of structural poverty who are exercising agency, and consciously deciding to have children without depending on a male partner. In this sense they are undoubtedly reflexively constructing their own ‘life narratives’, and are not just the victims of their social circumstances. Moreover, they are not behaving very differently from middle-class unmarried women who are choosing to have children; the main difference is their poorer material circumstance. Working-class women with few educational qualifications who choose to have children outside marriage clearly make use of the meagre resources available to them to facilitate their decision: these resources include social housing and welfare benefits.

Thus we are in agreement with Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (1995) who argue that a ‘new type of unmarried mother’ is emerging, for whom a traditional partnership with a man is unnecessary. They cite Burkart et al. (1989), writing about Germany, where the rate of births outside marriage is considerably lower than in Britain or the United States:

An illegitimate child is less and less the unwanted pregnancy of earlier years, and ever more frequently the planned pregnancy of women over 25. Extra-marital fertility, then, is less and less a ‘misfortune’ of young women and rather an obviously planned or at least consciously accepted decision of older women.

(Burkart et al. 1989:34, cited in Beck and Beck-Gernsheim


Beck and Beck-Gernsheim acknowledge that this does not apply to a majority of women, but point to the striking change in attitudes of young women to unmarried motherhood; in 1962 89.4 per cent considered it important for a woman with a child to be married, whereas in 1983 only 40 per cent did (Allerbeck and Hoag 1985, cited in Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 1995:205). They also point to the explosion of articles in women’s magazines about lone motherhood, which not only proclaim that single mothers can be good and happy mothers, but also often offer advice on getting pregnant. There is also, they suggest, a significant theme in recent women’s writing, both fiction and autobiography, which sees love for a child replacing love for a man, with the mother-child dyad replacing the cohabiting heterosexual couple as the primary source of intimacy and fulfilment in women’s lives. In an individualizing society, where marriages and heterosexual partnerships are increasingly prone to failure, and where women are seeking identities for themselves, many women place trust in the permanence and stability of a relationship with a child.

We would add to Beck and Beck-Gernsheim’s analysis mention of the role of feminism in this process. It is surely a measure of the success of feminism over the past century that some women have the confidence to exercise a decision to rely on the state rather than an individual man in raising their children. Probably only a small proportion of ‘lone – mothers-by-choice’ would identify themselves as feminists (Gordon 1990), but the creation of a cultural climate in which women are more able to live autonomous lives, is, in part, the product of the slow but deep-rooted social change that feminism has promoted.


In this chapter we have explored the creation of a discourse that links lone mothers with the reproduction of an underclass. We have highlighted the role of the moral panic about juvenile crime in Britain in calling forth this discourse, and suggested that the perceived fiscal crisis of the welfare state and the conservative desire to reduce welfare spending have been harnessed to this discourse in both Britain and the United States. Conservative politicians in both countries, together with many liberal commentators, have reached a degree of consensus that consists of seeing the lone mother as the source of juvenile crime, welfare dependence and, ultimately, societal disintegration. The resultant call for social policy to go ‘back to basics’ (in Britain), or to ‘restore the American dream’ (in the USA) encapsulated the forlorn hope that a ‘golden age’ of moral turpitude, economic self-reliance and family values could be recovered. Murray’s and Halsey’s identification of the failure of a generation of fathers could appear to be merely a benign, if outdated, paternalism. We are less generous and it is our contention that the discourse that has developed around their work is firmly anti-feminist. Certainly in contrast to other attempts by Christian fundamentalists and moral crusaders to attach their anti-feminist campaigns to economic individualism, making use of the underclass concept has proved very successful.

This emergent consensus needs to be confronted because it constitutes an attack on feminism and, most importantly, on millions of women living in poverty. If the anti-feminism expressed by the discourse that we have analysed is to be effectively addressed and understood, we must not collude in the eradication of the agency of those who are most attacked by it. It must be recognized that lone mothers are actors in their own right and that many make active choices to be mothers.

Thus we wish to jolt the debate between right and left, anti­feminists and feminists, out of its dualisms of blame/exoneration, guilt/innocence, agent/victim. The reluctance of the poverty lobby and those sympathetic to lone mothers to address the role of agency is understandable, given the onslaught against them, but ironically it has created space for their critics. We believe that it is time to shift the agenda of the debate towards consideration of ways of enhancing the choices available to lone mothers, rather than seeking to deny them choices or to deny that they have ever exercised choice.


Thus far our analysis of why the 1990s has seen such widespread concern about lone mothers has focused on the moral panic that erupted over the issue of juvenile crime and the targeting of lone mothers as part of the ideologically and fiscally motivated restructuring of the British welfare state. Both of these elements are crucial to understanding the form taken by anti-lone mother discourse in Britain. However, there is another strand to this discourse, one that applies equally in Britain and the United States: that of anti-feminism.

The notion of ‘backlash’ has achieved some popular and academic credibility recently, with the publication of Susan Faludi’s work about anti-feminism in the United States and Britain (Faludi 1992) and an article by Walby (1993), which add to the literature about the gender politics of the New Right and Thatcherism (e. g. ten Tusscher 1986; McNeil 1991; Somerville 1992). Both Franklin et al. (1991) and Walby (1993) have problematized the concept of ‘backlash’. We agree with Franklin et al. (1991:42) that to conceive of the gender politics of Thatcherism, or indeed any recent conservative government in Britain or the USA, as a straightforward ‘backlash’ against feminism is problematic, as it implies too simplistic a model of social and cultural change. Walby’s (1993) critique of Faludi’s analysis of the 1980s as a period of concerted effort to push women back into the home is also apposite; such a project gained less ground in Britain than in the USA. Indeed, even in the USA, women’s participation in paid work continued to increase, and divorce and unmarried motherhood rates continued to climb. This said, an ‘anti-feminist backlash’ can be observed in discourses about lone mothers and the underclass in Britain in 1993, and in the anti-lone-mother discourse of the early 1990s in the United States; they can be seen as part of a project of ‘patriarchal reconstruction’ (Smart 1989).

In general, this backlash is directed against feminism and against many of the social changes of the past two decades that have reduced women’s economic and social dependence on men. Walby (1990) suggests that women’s increased involvement in paid work and the increase in divorce and births outside marriage are part of a shift from a private to a more public form of patriarchy (see Fox Harding, Chapter 7 of this volume), in which women are less likely to be wholly financially dependent on a husband, and more likely to be dependent on paid work or the state. In the discourse of the backlash, however, the specificities of these social and economic changes are rarely discussed; rather blame is laid at the door of ‘trendy theories’ propagated by the likes of the authors and the readers of this book. For example a Sunday Times leader stated:

Over the past 20 years, an assorted collection of sociologists, feminists, left wing ideologues and agony aunties have made the abnormal family into the norm.

(Sunday Times, 11 July 1993)

A ‘focus special’ identified a group of American and British intellectuals—Alvin Toffler, Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer, Harriet Harman, Neil Kinnock, Jenni Murray and Susie Orbach—as ‘the pundits who made [families without men] politically correct’ (Sunday Times, 11 July 1993).5

An article entitled ‘The Price of Feminism’ in the Mail on Sunday (7 March 1993) explicitly linked the murder of James Bulger with the women’s liberation movement. A photograph of a 1970s march showing women carrying placards reading ‘women demand equality’ was placed next to a photograph of a young boy, wearing a balaclava helmet, pointing threateningly at the camera in 1993. The headline above them read ‘Did this—lead to this?’ In the article, Kathy Gyngell argued that feminism, by encouraging women to take paid employment, is responsible for juvenile crime and moral and social decline. Echoing theories of maternal deprivation from the 1950s (e. g. Bowlby 1951, 1953), she claimed that children were being neglected by their absent mothers, and drew upon essentialist notions of maternal instinct:

Feminists may complain that it is unfair that mothers are primarily responsible for the upbringing of their children. But it is an unavoidable fact of life.

Nature provides women not only with the body to bear children, but the instinct to foster their emerging sense of morality.

(Mail on Sunday, 7 March 1993)

The solution suggested is social policies to encourage women to stay at home with their children.

We have identified four aspects of anti-feminist backlash within recent discourses surrounding the underclass and lone motherhood.

First, there is the (re-)promotion of the heterosexual nuclear family, which Chafetz and Dworkin (1987) argue is the key feature of anti-feminist backlash. As we have shown, this is a unifying feature of recent discourses about juvenile crime, lone mothers and the underclass. Increasing rates of birth outside marriage must be halted, and fathers must return to their rightful role within the family. The degree of patriarchal power and form of paternal responsibility differs slightly between Murray’s right wing and Halsey/Phillip’s liberal version of the argument, but the message is the same: families need fathers. This position has been especially strong in the United States where advocates of the importance of fathers from the New Right, the fathers’ rights movement and the liberal legal tradition have together created a powerful cultural force (see Fineman 1989; Brophy 1989; Smart 1989).

Second, public debates about juvenile crime and the underclass operate by reversal, in a similar way to the wider backlash (Faludi 1992; Walby 1993; Franklin et al. 1991). Thus instead of the poverty and material deprivation suffered by many lone mothers and their children being regarded as a social problem demanding policy attention, lone mothers themselves become ‘the problem’. Rather than considering conditions to facilitate lone mothers being able to support their families by entering paid employment, for instance through state provision of child care, the question is how women, and men, can be powerfully dissuaded from conceiving children outside marriage (Murray 1990). Proposed solutions actually involve making life harder for lone mothers, with ‘workfare’, enforced sterilization, cuts in benefits and the removal of rights to social housing all being suggested.6

Similarly, McNeil’s (1991) concept of ‘the new oppressed’ illustrates the way discourses over juvenile crime and the underclass operate by reversal. McNeil argues that under Thatcher a number of social groups were constructed as ‘oppressed’: these included parents, fathers, over­burdened taxpayers and foetuses. The rights of these groups were seen as under attack from ‘female and feminist bogeys’ (McNeil 1991:229), above all, the lone mother. Thus Murray (1990), for instance, describes how difficult life is made for two-parent families who are unfortunate enough to have to try to raise their children in neighbourhoods full of single mothers and their illegitimate offspring. The decent, honest, respectable, hardworking father, the only father to attend his little girl’s Christmas play, is undermined, indeed oppressed, by single mothers whose existence makes a mockery of his attempts to be a proper father.

Likewise Frank Field, a Labour MP, Chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Social Services and a noted anti-poverty campaigner, enthusiastically endorsed comments by Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security and a renowned critic of the welfare state, about the necessity of supporting ‘the normal family’ (Field 1993). Lilley and Field agreed that social policy should do more to support the ‘traditional nurturing unit, the two-parent family’, and that there was a need to reassert ‘family values’. The discussion between these eminent politicians of opposite party political affiliations ended with Frank Field agreeing with Peter Lilley that previously they had ‘all been too frightened to raise the issue of family values’ (Newsnight, BBC2, 8 July 1993). Of whom these powerful men were afraid was not made explicit, but the implication was that ‘political correctness’ had previously prevented them from speaking their minds. This instance shows again how a myth of oppression, a reversal of actual dominant power relations, is constructed.

The third way in which discourses about juvenile crime and the underclass parallel other elements of the backlash is in its ‘one – gender fixation’ (Faludi 1992). Like much of the new right, these discourses are concerned primarily with the fate of young men; their attention is on the deleterious effects of unemployment for men, and of the lack of a male role model for boys. The well-being of girls and women does not enter the agenda. It could be suggested that this concern with men is an appropriate recognition that it is overwhelmingly men and boys who commit crime. However, the attention to problems of men is not the same as attention to the problem of masculinity or any sort of problematization of masculinity. On the contrary, a return to traditionally hegemonic forms of masculinity (economically dominant husband and socially dominant father) is seen as the solution to the problem. In this sense, feminist analysis and political campaigning that draw attention to the feminization of poverty and to the problems of hegemonic masculinity are implicitly attacked.

Finally, mention must be made of the essentialist constructions of masculinity and femininity that characterize much of the discourse on juvenile crime, lone mothers and the underclass. As has been pointed out earlier, Murray conceives of men and women as propelled by innate biological urges, in the case of men towards sex, and in the case of women towards procreation. These natural instincts, he argues, must be harnessed and used in a socially appropriate manner. Leaving aside the implications of social engineering, and the question of how this might be achieved, such essentialism is clearly anti-feminist.


Although much of the preceding discussion is unique to Britain in the early 1990s, there are many parallels with the United States. In both countries there has been a concerted ideological offensive against the welfare state by radical conservatives, and in both countries lone mothers have been highlighted as a serious financial burden on the taxpayer. Murray’s analysis, which he developed in the 1980s, was exported from the United States pretty much wholesale to Britain, and with this came suggestions that Britain adopt policies such as the New Jersey scheme that refuses benefit to women who have a second child while still dependent on welfare.

However, there are two substantial differences between anti-lone- mother rhetoric in Britain and in the United States. First, in the USA the discourse has long been racialized in a manner almost completely absent in Britain. Solinger argues that there are ‘two histories of single pregnancy in the post-World War II era, one for Black women and one for white’ (Solinger 1994:287). Whereas white women who gave birth outside marriage increasingly became subject to a psychological discourse, which constructed them as maladjusted and in need of help, black women who did the same were seen as merely expressing their ‘natural’, ‘unrestrained sexuality’ (Solinger 1994:299). Illegitimate white babies could therefore be removed from their mothers and adopted by ‘stable’ couples (thereby fulfilling the demand for white babies for adoption) on the grounds that this would both provide their mothers with the best chance of overcoming their neuroses, and at the same time offer the best future to the child. Illegitimate black babies, on the other hand, were left with their mothers, because adoption demand was less than for white babies, and because it was thought that their mothers were not in need of a ‘cure’. Public discourse about lone motherhood in this period focused on black women. Southern Dixiecrats and Northern racists united to condemn the social liability of black illegitimate children, and opinion polls suggested that the American people wanted to with-draw Aid to Dependent Children from these children (Solinger 1994:301). Black women thus became, often unwillingly, the first group in the United States to receive publicly subsidized birth control, sterilization and abortion (Ward 1986).

In the 1980s and 1990s the American discourse continued to highlight the special ‘problem’ of black lone motherhood. With the conservatives to the fore, liberal commentators increasingly acquiesced in the growing consensus that ‘something did have to be done about the offspring of the (mainly black) underclass, who, raised by teen moms, grow into gun-wielding, benefit-draining, drug-dealing hoodlums’ (Guardian, 31 January 1995). To date, black women have not been specifically targeted in Britain in the same way as in the United States (see Chapter 10 by Phoenix in this volume).

The second difference between the discourse in the United States and Britain is that it has achieved far greater hegemony in the USA. Both countries have seen the highest increases in lone motherhood in the developed world (Chandler 1991), but rates, particularly for lone mothers under 20, remain higher in the USA (Phoenix 1991). This, combined with the far greater political and cultural strength of the right in the USA, has meant that the discourse has been pushed further there than in Britain. In 1994, the Republicans regained control of Congress on the basis of their ‘Contract with America’, which promised to eradicate ‘the culture of welfare dependency’. Two major planks in the programme of the Republican speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, both constitute attacks on lone motherhood: the ‘American Dream Restoration Act’, which will provide tax credits for two-parent families, and the proposal to remove children from their unmarried mothers and place them in orphanages, in order to break the cycle by which the underclass is reproduced (Guardian, 26 November 1994, 31 January 1995). In Britain, in contrast, although ‘discrimination’ against couples with children and in favour of lone parents in the allocation of council (state-subsidized) housing has been condemned by government ministers, the policy response has been to remove the obligation on local authorities to give priority to all the statutorily homeless in the allocation of housing. This move will disproportionately affect lone mothers, but is not aimed exclusively at them, suggesting that it has been more difficult to translate political rhetoric into policy proposals in Britain than it has been, and probably will be, in the United States.


By mid-1993, the lone mother was being assessed in terms of her economic as well as her moral and social costs to the nation. The Sunday Times (11 July 1993) again led the way for the media with a special pull-out with the following headlines across four pages: ‘Wedded to Welfare’; ‘Do they want to marry a man or the state?’; ‘Once illegitimacy was punished—now it is rewarded’. Murray was once again provided with space to argue that there is ‘no point fiddling with welfare at the margin’, and that ‘only marriage and the principle of legitimacy will preserve a liberal society.’ The cartoon that accompanied this special pull-out—a faceless male social security officer with a pregnant bride on his arm and three children emerging from beneath her dress, a beer swilling man/father just in the background—hardly corresponded with any liberal values of tolerance. Likewise, leader comments in the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express (15 July 1993) echoed Welsh Secretary John Redwood’s condemnation (2 July 1993) of women who had children ‘with no apparent intention of even trying marriage or a stable relationship with the father of the child’ (quoted in Blackie 1994:18).

The simple equation that was propagated was as follows: public spending is out of control, a major reason for the increase in public spending is the number of mothers on benefit, they reproduce the values of welfare dependency in their children, an underclass of such people is forming, therefore a downward spiral of moral decline and an upward spiral of welfare costs is the future that Britain faces.

Lone mothers were not the only group relying on public welfare to be the target of critical comments, but they were seen as one of the ‘softer’ political targets.4 As the debate within the Conservative Party over how to tackle the public debt intensified, attention that had already that year been focused on lone mothers as the producers of the underclass was harnessed in their direction once more. Speeches in July 1993 about the economic burden of never-married mothers occurred shortly after a seminar organized by the Institute of Economic Affairs, which attracted some of those who were subsequently so vocal on the topic.

Apart from the work of Murray, whose research consisted of little more than a trawl through some existing secondary sources and a few conversations with interesting ‘characters’, the media were not interested in existing research. While Murray was held up as a beacon of academic integrity and Halsey as someone who had seen the light, and Phillips lambasted social scientists for failing to research the problems, there was no interest in work that contradicted Murray. No one quoted Macnicol (1987), who has pointed out that in the past it was common for observers to discuss ‘the dangerous classes’, the ‘residuum’ and their ‘culture of poverty’, but that these notions have been discredited in recent years. Likewise, and despite the fact that the United States was so often the ‘nightmare’ haunting Britain, no one thought it worth quoting William Prosser, Senior Policy Advisor to President Bush, who dismissed the underclass idea as little more than a reworking of older, discredited, concepts like the culture of poverty (Prosser 1990; Mann 1992). More recent empirical work, such as that of Dean and Taylor-Gooby, which shows that lone parents hold views that ‘adhere to the mainstream values of work and family ethics’ (Dean and Taylor-Gooby 1992:5), were never mentioned. Rather, the press used ‘common sense’ to ride roughshod over complex social issues and changes. The facts that the average duration of lone parenthood for never-married mothers is only 35 months (Ermisch 1986), that many lone mothers may live in fear of the child’s father, and that the majority of lone mothers are not ‘single’ but divorced or separated (Brown 1989) were rarely reflected in the press.


Although Murray does not reflect the views of any sizeable academic constituency in Britain, he is an important and influential figure. In 1987 he had meetings with Department of Health and Social Security and Treasury officials and members of the then Prime Minister’s Policy Unit, and two years later he addressed the Prime Minister (Dean and Taylor-Gooby 1992:5). The press are not generally noted for their keen interest in the work of social scientists, but the views of Murray have been invoked to provide academic credibility for various leader writers and social commentators. The Sunday Times has persistently cited Murray, with Andrew Neil, the paper’s former editor, pointing out that it was his newspaper that introduced Murray to the British public and sponsored his ‘research’ in Britain in 1989. Murray’s ideas have also been disseminated by News International Group newspapers in other countries. Right­wing think tanks—the Institute of Economic Affairs in Britain and the Centre for Industrial Studies in Australia—have been quick to adopt Murray’s arguments, both publishing his work (Murray 1990), and imprinting their other publications with the mark of his theories (e. g. Dennis and Erdos 1992; Davies 1993). Thus, and despite the fact that he has done little primary research, Murray has found a receptive international audience and a number of followers among journalists and politicians. As an American, Murray is considered to be well placed to tell Britain what the future may hold if unmarried mothers are allowed to continue reproducing the underclass unchecked. Comparisons with the United States are commonplace within the British discourse, with the spectre of American inner-city social dislocation and violence given prominence (MacGregor 1990).3

According to Murray, there are three types of behaviour associated with membership of the underclass: illegitimacy, violent crime and drop-out from the labour force. He does not make clear whether these forms of behaviour are cause or consequence of underclass membership. What is clear, however, is that the underclass, to put it in the ‘common-sense’ language Murray is so fond of, is composed of ‘idle, thieving bastards’ (Bagguley and Mann 1992).

Like many right-wing observers, Murray presents the issue in terms of rational choices. Whereas choice is usually portrayed by the right as a tremendous benefit to society and the economy, it is seen as inappropriate for women who want to have children without the support of an economically active man. Thus David Green of the Institute of Economic Affairs (in the Institute’s series entitled ‘Choice in Welfare’) laments the fact that, The traditional family of mum, dad and the kids has become just another lifestyle choice.’ He goes on to ask, ‘Is every moral value just another lifestyle option? Or is there a minimum stock of values which we ignore at our peril?’ (Green 1993:vi).

Never-married mothers are deemed to have made the wrong choices, albeit, according to Murray, rational ones. Murray argues that lone mothers choose dependence on the state in preference to marriage because the benefit system privileges the lone mother over the two-parent family. This combines with the fact that there is no longer a stigma to illegitimacy to mean that many young women no longer see the need to marry in order to have children. Murray goes on to suggest that these women are denying their children suitable masculine role models and denying young men a respectable role as father figures. There is a moral vacuum, it is claimed, which has its roots in the ‘permissive society’ of the 1960s, the period when Murray detects a shift in social values. The stigma that Murray feels is so important in deterring illegitimacy was eroded by the ‘sexual revolution of the 1960s’ (Murray 1990:28). As he says:

There is an obvious explanation for why single young women get pregnant: sex is fun and babies endearing. Nothing could be more natural than for young men and women to have sex, and nothing
could be more natural than for a young woman to want to have a baby.

(Murray 1990:28)

Only the financial restraints of subsistence benefits and social opprobrium can restrain such biologically determined, natural inclinations. In Murray’s world view both men and women are driven by essential impulses—men to reckless barbarian behaviour and promiscuous sex, women to reproduction and motherhood. In order for society to function smoothly, this Hobbesian state of nature must be tamed by moral codes and economic sanctions. However, he does not suggest that all ‘fatherless families’ are part of the underclass: widows and divorcees are generally exempt, as are affluent women with careers who choose to be unmarried lone parents. The focus is squarely on working-class women.

According to Murray, ‘illegitimacy’ is bad for both men and boys, and as a consequence is bad for society as a whole; whether or not it is good or bad for women does not enter his discussion. First of all, boys brought up without a male role model in female-headed households do not receive adequate socialization into manhood:

Little boys don’t naturally grow up to be responsible fathers and husbands. They don’t naturally grow up knowing how to get up every morning at the same time and go to work. They don’t naturally grow up thinking that work is not just a way to make money, but a way to hold one’s head high in the world.

(Murray 1990:10-11)

Without a father, adolescent boys are unruly and criminal; ‘in communities without fathers the kids tend to run wild. The fewer the fathers, the greater the tendency’ (Murray 1990:12).

Not being a real father, a father who works to provide for his wife and family, is also bad for adult men themselves. Paid work must be ‘the centre of life’ for young men.

Подпись: (Murray 1990:23)

Supporting a family is a central means for a man to prove to himself that he is a ‘mensch’. Men who do not support families find other ways to prove that they are men…. [Y]oung males are essentially barbarians for whom marriage—meaning not just the wedding vows but the act of taking responsibility for a wife and children—is an indispensable civilizing force.

These views about the vital importance of fathers to social stability have since been echoed by Halsey, speaking from an ‘ethical socialist’ perspective:

The very, very important ingredient of a role model of a working man, a person who goes to work and comes back and does all sorts of DIY and is a responsible adult person, is missing. And that seems to be a way of making sure you don’t have barbarism. Because young men, grown men have got nothing to do with anything that really matters and they just faff around satisfying their own desires, tastes.

(Panorama, BBC1, 20 September 1993)

Following the Bulger murder, the Sunday Times solicited Murray’s views from the United States about the problem of juvenile crime and resurrected his earlier commentary. The marks of his theories are clearly visible in an editorial entitled ‘Return of the Family’:

It is becoming increasingly clear to all but the most blinkered of social scientists that the disintegration of the nuclear family is the principal source of so much social unrest and misery. The creation of an urban underclass, on the margins of society, but doing great damage to itself and the rest of us, is directly linked to the rapid rise in illegitimacy.

The past two decades have witnessed the growth of whole communities in which the dominant family structure is the single­parent mother on welfare, whose male offspring are already immersed in a criminal culture by the time they are teenagers and whose daughters are destined to follow the family tradition of unmarried mothers…. [F]or communities to function successfully they need families with fathers.

(Sunday Times, 28 February 1993)

Startlingly similar opinions have also been expressed in the British liberal press. Melanie Phillips in the Guardian had already been writing about the problem of the underclass before the juvenile crime panic erupted; the Bulger murder provided the moment for a full-scale campaign to ‘rediscover the values of the family’ (Guardian, 26 February 1993). Phillips hangs her polemic on the work of Halsey, whom she interviewed for the Guardian (23 February 1993). Halsey ‘feels passionately that the decline of the nuclear family is not merely at the root of many social ills but is the cancer in the lungs of the modern left’. He laments the disappearance of the specificity of the ‘family contract’, and the absence of male role models in contemporary families:

We’re talking about a situation where the man never arrives, never mind leaves. There is a growing proportion of children born into single parent families where the father has never participated as a father but only as a genital.

(Guardian, 23 February 1993)

Apparently Halsey feels that, without a father, the child (implicitly male), grows up unable to see women ‘as anything other than objects of sexual manipulation and gratification’. (Presumably when mothers also perform domestic labour for their husbands, fathers disavow boys of the idea that women only provide sexual servicing!)

Using Halsey’s ideas as academic legitimation for her own, and citing the work of the Institute for Public Policy Research, Phillips argues that being brought up by a lone mother is bad for children’s psychological development. Public policy should explicitly support two-parent families, and enforce paternal responsibility.

So, the views of the conservative, Murray, and the socialist, Halsey, are remarkably close, the most obvious difference being that Halsey places considerable emphasis on the need for real men to be keen at DIY. Both commentators paint peculiarly romantic pictures of patriarchal masculinity that seem to be locked into the 1950s. But with the decline of the sort of ‘respectable working-class’ employment in manufacturing industry that Murray’s ‘mensch’ would have taken, the rise in the service sector, women’s employment and part-time working, their ideal family structure confronts head-on the reality of the free market in the 1990s.


As Hall etal. (1978) point out, a widespread ‘moral panic’ about the ‘steadily rising rate of violent crime’ has been simmering away in British society since the 1960s. The most recent outbreak of moral indignation began with a focus on car crime committed by young men, and the racing of stolen cars around council estates drew widespread media coverage in 1991.

However, media attention to juvenile crime reached unprecedented heights in February 1993 following the murder of James Bulger. Still photographs from security video cameras in the mall showed the child with two figures, who appeared to be in their early teens. A hunt began for the murderers, during which several teenage boys were arrested and then eventually released uncharged. When two 10-year-old boys finally appeared in court, a crowd of about 250 people gathered outside, many hurling missiles and abuse at the accused (Guardian, 23 February 1993).

The concern about juvenile crime that crystalized around the Bulger case can be labelled a ‘moral panic’, given the unanimity with which police, politicians, journalists and sections of the public reacted ‘out of all proportion to the actual threat’ (Hall et al. 1978:16). Initially the panic concerned juvenile crime, but later it transpired that the ‘real’, underlying problem was lone mothers. From the breaking of the news about the murder of James Bulger until several weeks after the charging of suspects, the issue of juvenile crime dominated the media. The commentary of ‘experts’ and the ‘vox pop’ of the general public saturated the press, television and radio, all discussing the ‘new’ phenomenon of serious juvenile crime. From one murder, within the background context of rising car crime, was extrapolated a major new social scourge.

Condemnation of juvenile crime was not limited to those traditionally vocal on issues of law and order; indeed, the Labour Party made much of the running in the aftermath of the Bulger murder, with Tony Blair, soon-to-be Labour Party Leader, declaring Labour policy to be ‘tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime’ (Guardian, 22 February 1993).

The gender politics of this moral panic about juvenile crime emerge in the analyses proffered by the media and by those ‘experts’ asked to explain the phenomenon. Despite Prime Minister John Major’s declaration that society should ‘condemn a little more and understand a little less’, a veritable industry of pop sociology emerged during the lifetime of the panic. Both Murray and Halsey, appearing in the Sunday Times and the Guardian respectively, along with editorials in almost every newspaper, linked the phenomenon of juvenile crime with the emergence of an underclass in British society, and this with the breakdown of the nuclear family and the increase in births outside marriage. Rising juvenile crime was presented as both the evidence and the result of a growing underclass composed primarily of never- married mothers and their children. The solution to the problem therefore (sometimes implicit, other times explicit) was simple: the reconstitution of the nuclear family and the reassertion of the power and role of the father within it (e. g. Halsey 1992, Murray 1990).


Our initial interest was prompted by the widespread moral outrage that followed the murder of a 2-year-old boy, James Bulger, in February 1993. In the period that followed the murder, the media homed in on lone mothers and their fatherless, supposedly criminally inclined children, identifying them as the core of the underclass and the source of many contemporary social problems. Although the intensity of this ‘moral panic’ ebbed in the months that followed, 1993 was, in many respects, ‘the year of the lone mother’ in Britain. The press, tabloid and broadsheet alike, was full of articles about the ‘problem’ of never-married mothers, and television and radio docu­mentaries and discussion programmes were devoted to the topic. For the second year running, the Conservative Party conference in the Autumn of 1993 rang to denunciations of single mothers, and an ill – fated ‘back to basics’ programme to restore the nation’s morality was launched.1

The discourse about the underclass that developed in 1993 dichotomized women along age-old lines—good women who do the right thing, get married and then have children, versus bad women, who have children, don’t get married and depend on state benefits. By the second half of the year, attention was not just on the social costs of fatherless families that fail properly to socialize their children but included the financial costs as well.

As Smart (Chapter 2 of this volume, and 1992) and many other writers have documented, the problematization of unmarried mothers (who are consistently condemned more than mothers who are single through divorce, abandonment or widowhood) has a long history and has, at different times, emphasized variously the economic, the moral and the psychological problems caused by lone mothers.2 Moral outrage about lone mothers, particularly young mothers, existed throughout the 1980s (McRobbie 1989; Phoenix 1991), and it had been escalating from 1987 (Fox Harding 1993a). In 1991 the media erupted in a brief furore about ‘virgin births’, as evidence that growing numbers of women, particularly lesbians, were becoming ‘lone mothers by choice’, and doing so without even sexual contact with men (Radford 1991). Despite this history, there are good reasons for seeing developments in 1993 as novel.

First, the level of political vitriol against lone mothers, particularly never-married mothers, reached a new intensity by 1993; the speeches of Ministers Lilley and Redwood seized the headlines on numerous occasions and whipped the Tory faithful into ecstatic applause. Second, the context within which the discourse was produced was different from that pertaining during previous out-breaks of outrage about lone mothers. Throughout the 1980s there was a significant increase in the proportion of families headed by never-married mothers; by the beginning of the 1990s, 27 per cent of births were to unmarried mothers, with especially high rates in some areas (for example, 54 per cent in North Manchester; Muncie et al. 1995). Of course, many of these mothers will get married, may be in a heterosexual relationship already, or will not be intending to rely on single-parent benefits. Nevertheless, we would suggest that a significant minority of lone mothers do not intend to marry and see no place in their families for a ‘father figure’ (see, for example, Renvoize 1985; Morris 1992; Gordon 1990, 1994). While this may have been true of a very small proportion of lone mothers in the past, there appears to be a new confidence and assertiveness in many women. For many, despite the difficulties associated with lone motherhood, there seems to be a pragmatic feeling that they can manage, albeit with state support, and that the father is an obstacle to a stable life for themselves and their children. These women are not necessarily ‘abandoned’ by the fathers, nor should their pregnancies be assumed to be ‘accidents’; in this respect, they are not victims.

The final reason why the 1993 discourse about lone mothers is significant is that it was disseminated extremely widely throughout the media. It dominated the political agenda to an unprecedented extent and elicited a considerable degree of consensus across the left – right political divide. With its differing strands, emphasizing morality or economics, the discourse united Tory traditionalists concerned with ‘family values’ and morality, Christian socialists and liberals with similar interests, and Thatcherite hardliners keen to continue ‘rolling back the welfare state’. Moreover, and in contrast to earlier panics about the morality of young women, events in 1993 enabled these groups to engage with each other. Above all, the authority of the discourse rested on the status of two of its leading exponents—the American, Charles Murray (1990), and the Briton, A. H.Halsey (1992).

Inadequate families

Lone mothers and the underclass debate

Sasha Roseneil and Kirk Mann

Alongside the growth in the number of women both having children outside marriage and bringing them up alone, recent years have seen extensive public debate about lone motherhood. This chapter explores the way this debate has created a category of mothers that is not only deemed ‘not good enough’ at the raising of children but is also pinpointed as positively harmful to society. Our particular focus is on the powerful and widespread discourse that gripped the media and policy circles in the early 1990s; this discourse links lone motherhood with the creation and reproduction of an ‘underclass’ in contemporary society. While this period is certainly not unique in its concern about the breakdown of ‘the family’ and the rise in the number of never-married mothers, this specific discursive construction of lone motherhood is particularly interesting. The intensity of media interest and the prolific nature of government pronouncements and policy proposals on the subject suggest that the confluence of the issue of lone motherhood with the notion that there is a dangerous and growing underclass has taken a firm hold on the collective conscience of British and US society.

In this chapter we explore why this discourse about lone mothers, absent fathers and the underclass has achieved such widespread credibility. Our focus is primarily on its expression in Britain, though we identify its origins in the United States, and we pass comment on the differing courses it has taken on each side of the Atlantic. We attempt to unravel some of the complex threads of moral concerns about the decline of the family, fiscal concerns about welfare benefits and ‘the costs’ of dependency, and a largely unspoken, but lurking, anti-feminism. We suggest that this discourse is located within the framework of a welfare state that is in the process of restructuring, and within a wider project of ‘patriarchal reconstruction’ (Smart 1989), and that it constitutes a ‘backlash’ against long-term changes

in gender relations and against feminism. Towards the end of the chapter we take up an issue that is at the heart of the discourse but has largely been ignored by other feminist and critical commentators: the question of agency.


Black families have consistently been identified as problematic in both Britain and the USA (McAdoo 1988; Phoenix 1987, 1990, 1993). In particular, high rates of lone motherhood in populations of African origin have been blamed for problems ranging from educational underachievement to delinquency (see, for example, the report of the official inquiry into the underachievement of’West Indian’ children in British schools, which focuses on the high rates of lone parenthood among ‘West Indian’ families; Swann 1985). High rates of lone motherhood have been an important focus in the construction of black families as outside the British nation (Gilroy 1987). In addition, US theories of the underclass have focused on self-perpetuating groups of alienated, unemployed men who engage in criminal activities but do not participate in family life with the young women with whom they produce children (Wilson 1987). These theories have generated concern about the high percentage of ‘the underclass’ that is black. In the United States, concerns about lone mothers continue to be racialized (Morris 1994). Given the historical pervasiveness of pathological constructions of black lone mothers (Lawrence 1982), it might be expected that recent discourses of lone motherhood in Britain would be particularly aimed at black mothers of African – Caribbean origin. This is not, however, the case. In the current moral panic about lone parenting there has been, apparently, no explicit attempt to link ‘race’ and nation with lone motherhood.

The absence of discourses of black pathology in recent constructions of lone motherhood is so strikingly obvious that it requires explanation. Scott-Jones and Nelson-Le Gall (1986) argue that social issues perceived to pertain to minority ethnic groups are generally not taken seriously. If, however, white majorities start behaving in the same way, the issue comes to be seen as less problematic, but also generally gets taken more seriously. Arguably then, while lone motherhood was seen as almost exclusively a black aberration, it was censured, but constructed as due to cultural difference and the Otherness of black people (Phoenix 1990, 1991). Over the last two decades a handful of writers have argued that similar behaviours in black and white ‘young’, single mothers necessarily have different aetiologies. Thus, in a review of US literature, Phipps-Yonas (1980) pointed out that individualistic, psychological explanations tended to be advanced in explanation of pregnancies to single, white young women, whereas ‘cultural reasons’ tended to be advanced in explanation of black ‘teenage pregnancies’. The few pieces of British work attempting to explain black and white differences in rates of lone ‘teenage motherhood’ have racialized the issues in similar ways, constructing white and black lone ‘teenage motherhood’ as the result respectively of individual aberration and group cultural norms (Phoenix 1988).

Rickie Solinger (1994) argues that, while there have been historical shifts in the ways in which ‘illegitimacy’ is constructed in the United States, black and white ‘illegitimate’ babies have, particularly since the 1940s, been constructed differently. ‘In short, after World War II, the white bastard child was no longer the child nobody wanted. The Black illegitimate baby became the child white politicians and taxpayers loved to hate’ (Solinger 1994:287). Thus, black lone mothers were expected to keep their babies, while white lone mothers were expected to give up their babies for adoption. In this construction, black lone mothers were constructed as irredeemably Other, while white lone mothers could experience redemption by relinquishing their babies.

The benign neglecters began to articulate their position at about

the same time that the psychologists provided new explanations

for white single pregnancy. In tandem, these developments set Black and white unwed mothers in different universes of cause and effect…. Thus, by becoming mothers, even unwed mothers, Black women were simply doing what came naturally. There was no reason for social service workers or policymakers to interfere. Since professionals could have an impact on the immediate situation—and could not penetrate or rearrange Black ‘culture,’ it was doubly futile to consider interfering.

(Solinger 1994:298-9)

While high rates of lone motherhood seemed confined to black populations in the United States and Britain, ‘cultural’ explanations of black lone motherhood were largely unquestioned. However, as white women have increasingly become lone mothers over the last decade, the assumption of necessary black and white differences in family forms has increasingly been shown to be inadequate. Furstenberg, Brooks-Gunn and Morgan (1987) are among those who have had to re-evaluate black and white differences and commonalities in patterns of lone motherhood as white young women have started to show patterns similar to those associated with black young women:

By the mid-1980s, almost all children of black teenage mothers were born out-of-wedlock. . These dramatic changes helped create the belief that teenage childbearing is primarily a black issue. But recent trends suggest that blacks may simply have been pacesetters for the population at large.

(Furstenberg et al. 1987:5)

There is, currently, a great deal of work (from a variety of perspectives) that attempts to explain lone motherhood in black populations (see, for example, Dickerson 1995). How then can the absence of mention of black lone mothers in recent British Conservative discourses on lone motherhood be explained?

Demography may be argued to provide one explanation for the lack of racialization of discourses of lone motherhood. For black lone mothers currently constitute a tiny percentage of all lone mothers. In fact, on the basis of figures from the 1991 British census, about half of black mothers of African-Caribbean origin in Britain are lone parents at any one time (C. Owen, personal communication 1995). However, people of African-Caribbean descent constitute less than 1 per cent of the British population. There is also more employment among black women than among white women (D. Owen 1994), making black lone mothers less likely than white lone mothers to be dependent on state provision. As a result, there is little point in aiming censure particularly at black lone mothers if government aim is to reduce welfare payments. The appeal has to be wider, going beyond black mothers. However, governments are not noted for paying particular attention to demographic trends or always using statistics accurately and responsibly when formulating policy decisions or making rallying speeches. This is evident in the debate about the figures cited by John Redwood to warrant his concern about high rates of single parenthood on the St Mellon’s estate in Wales in 1993. These figures were reproduced in a BBC Panorama programme on lone mothers. A complaint was subsequently made by the National Council for One Parent Families (NCOPF) which included a refutation of the figures used by Redwood and Panorama. The NCOPF cited research commissioned by South Glamorgan Social Services, and conducted by Pithouse et al. (1991) at the University of Cardiff, to argue that less than 20 per cent of parents in the area Redwood was talking about (St Mellon’s) were actually lone parents (compared to the 65 per cent that Redwood claimed). Despite the accusations of having used inaccurate figures, neither Redwood nor the Panorama programme retracted their statements. In addition, as Seidman and Rappoport (1986) argue, it is common for the construction of social problems to be characterized by ‘generalizations from extreme samples’. In keeping with this, black lone mothers have frequently been stereotyped as ‘typical’ lone mothers (Ziegler 1995).

A further explanation could be argued to be the disruption of the assumed link between family structure and the lawless behaviour of black male youth of African-Caribbean descent. The disruption of this link is important to a consideration of lone motherhood, since it has been commonplace for social scientists as well as politicians to blame the perceived ills of black young people (poor educational attainment as well as lawlessness) on ‘female-headed households’ and ‘father absence’.

The point implied in much of the literature is that a lot of the culturally ‘abnormal’ behaviour of minority groups can be traced back to supposed family deficiencies. Additionally, the problematic black family background is often implicated in explanations for unrest, decay, and violence in the inner cities.

(Brittan and Maynard 1984:34)

Scarman’s discussion of the black community in the Brixton area [following his official inquiry into the Brixton ‘riots’]…begins with a section on the family which reproduces the stereotyped image of black household beset by generational conflict and torn asunder by antagonism between authoritarian parents.. The pathological character of these households is established in the text by a discussion of the effects of male absence and of male presence.. According to Scarman, the resulting ‘matriarchy’ undergoes ‘destructive changes’ under the impact of British social conditions and the disintegration of this basic structure of life is part of the chain reaction which ended in the Brixton riot.

(Gilroy 1987:104-5)

In the 1990s, various clashes between the British police and public have made it less tenable to assert that modern urban disorder is only the province of young black masculinity. The clashes have occurred on predominantly white council housing estates in Newcastle, on mixed estates in Luton, with Asian youth in Bradford, with white young people attending rave parties and with travellers. Despite this, however, the assumed link between ‘race’ and crime has not disappeared. A letter from the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Condon, to black ‘community leaders’, leaked to the British press in July 1995, argued that most muggings are committed by ‘very young black people. excluded from school’. However, it made no mention of black families, lone or otherwise, as causally responsible. Nor has the debate generated by this leak focused on the black families from which these ‘muggers’ come. Is it then the case that Conservatives have not censured black lone mothers because it is no longer plausible to suggest that black families are mainly responsible for urban unrest? Has the space created by the silencing of discourses on the deviance of black lone-parent families been filled by discourses on the deviance of some white families, in particular those headed by lone mothers?

Such a conclusion is unwarranted. Michael Keith in discussing a London newspaper’s 1990 description of ‘typical muggers’ argues that their description is racialized although there is no explicit statement about ‘race’. The identikit rioter, the alienated criminal, the designer mugger; there is no need to say they are Black because we already know it’ (Keith 1993:248). In a similar way, the fact that there are long-standing and pervasive linkages between black lone-parent families and black male crime in discourses of ‘law and order’ makes it unnecessary for black young men’s assumed criminality to be blamed explicitly on black family structure. The link has already been made and so is already known. The historical location of ‘the problem’ of lone parenthood is such that ‘we already know’ that the worst offenders with regard to lone motherhood are black lone mothers. The already established ‘commonplace’ no longer needs to be spelled out (Billig 1991). While Conservative discourses would probably not be taken seriously by white lone parents if they were aimed specifically at black lone parents, it is extremely easy for old racialized constructions to become evident and, hence, to be demonstrated to be still in operation. Ziegler (1995) illustrates this with a high-profile example from the United States where, in 1992, Dan Quayle, then the Republican vice­president, attacked ‘Murphy Brown’, a character in a television soap opera, for choosing to become a lone mother:

It is ironic that Quayle chose to pick on TV character Murphy Brown, who is portrayed as a single woman with an annual income of more than $50,000 who made the choice to be a single parent, because Murphy does not fit the typical stereotype usually associated with single parenting, primarily and often profiled as an African American female who is on welfare. As a matter of fact, on the evening of the sitcom’s 1992 fall premiers where Murphy struck back at the vice-president, Quayle selected a group of African American single parents in Washington DC, to view the program with him to serve as a symbol of his support for single parenting. Unfortunately, Quayle’s choice of this racial composition for the audience opened the door for more comments regarding his motives.

(Ziegler 1995:81)

Quayle’s choice of black lone mothers to view the programme with him was widely interpreted as a blunder. For while he had never explicitly criticized black single parents, his gesture was interpreted by many to give a coded racial message about who he considered as ‘typical’ lone parents.

The implicit racialization of discourses of lone motherhood intersects with the racialization of insider-outsider status with regard to the British nation in a way that contributes to explanations of the absence of ‘race’ in recent discourses of lone motherhood. Black families have long been constructed as outsiders in the British nation. A central tenet of ‘new racism’ in political discourses has been the counterposing of threatening hordes of often lawless black people, who, if allowed, would ‘swamp’ British society, with the construction of Britain as consisting of a homogeneous culture (Barker 1981). The discourses and policies aimed at black people that result from these constructions are related to immigration controls and rights of citizenship. A statement from Margaret Thatcher, in the period just before her first election as British Prime Minister, which was delivered in a television interview, clearly constructs black populations as a threat from without. ‘People really are rather afraid that this country might be swamped by people with a different culture’ (Margaret Thatcher, Daily Mail, January 1978).

There have been recurrent demands by British politicians and the media that ‘foreigners’ and outsiders should be excluded from claims to British social security payments. Some lone mothers, who cannot be positioned as outside the nation, have also been subjected to proclamations that they should be prevented from making ‘dishonest’ welfare claims. Peter Lilley, the Conservative Social Security Secretary, has repeatedly advocated a ‘crackdown’ on ‘fraudulent’ welfare claims made, according to him, by one in five lone parents living on welfare (Brindle 1995b). Highlighting the lawlessness of large numbers of lone parents is a strategy for generating consensus about the problematic nature of lone mothers. However, such pronouncements cannot be applied to those lone parents who are ‘insiders’ in the British nation, and who claim only those benefits the state has decreed that they are entitled to receive. In that context, it makes little sense to include those constructed as necessarily outside the supposedly unitary British culture in discourses of lone motherhood. Outsiders’ claims are constructed as unauthorized in other ways. Instead, lone parents, particularly those who attempt to defraud the British state, have been constructed as the threat from within the British nation:

Children are in danger of seeing life without the father, not as the exception, but as the rule. This is a new kind of threat to our way of life, the long term implications of which we cannot grasp.

(Margaret Thatcher, Speech to the National Children’s Home, 1990)

The discourses of black and of white lone motherhood thus do not converge and cannot easily be reconciled. On the one hand, discourses about black lone mothers construct those who have been held to be responsible for many of the ills considered to beset black people and white society as Other and outsiders from British society. Their high rates of lone motherhood are thus constructed as the threat from outside the nation. On the other hand, white lone mothers are insiders in the British nation, but are constructed as constituting a threat from within, outsiders with regard to ‘normal’ and responsible parenting behaviour. Solinger (1994) found a historical differentiation in the United States between constructions of black and white ‘illegitimacy’:

Black, unmarried mothers, in contrast, were said to offer bad value (Black babies) at a high price (taxpayer-supported welfare grants) to the detriment of society, demographically and economically….The fact that it was, overwhelmingly, a buyers’ market for Black babies ‘proved’ the valuelessness of these children, despite their expense to the taxpaying public. White babies entered a healthy sellers’ market, with up to ten couples competing for every one adoptable infant.

(Solinger 1994:300)

The incompatibility of the discourses of insiders and of outsiders provides a central reason that black lone mothers have not been targeted in speeches designed to reduce support for welfare provision for lone mothers. It is insiders, whose belonging to the nation cannot easily be challenged, who are the targets in such campaigns. The omission of lone black mothers in this instance still renders them pathological since it indicates that they are not genuinely British. Leaving ‘race’ silent in recent discourses of lone motherhood thus does not signify the deracialization of such discourses. As such it leaves open the possibility that ‘race’ can be directly invoked, when necessary, in future discourses of lone motherhood.


The ways in which the British Conservative government of the mid – 1990s focused on lone motherhood as a social problem has not produced fruitful solutions. This is partly due to the failure to distinguish between different groups of lone mothers while making the most dramatic case by treating all lone mothers as if they are young and single: generalizing from extreme samples. Inappropriate solutions have resulted from the narrow constructions favoured by

Conservative politicians and have, in addition, reduced popular support for government pronouncements. Assumptions that it is easy to appeal to ‘commonplaces’ about ‘the family’ have proved un­founded, as lone motherhood has proved to be a contested terrain characterized by contradictory social constructions.

Over the last three decades there have been both demographic and ideological shifts related to lone motherhood. It has proved difficult for a government that has asserted itself strongly with regard to policies on ‘the family’ to accommodate to changes in discursive constructions, particularly since ‘the family’ is a favoured site for policy implementation. This makes contradictions and conflicts in government discourses and policies apparent. Inadequate definitions of what is problematic about lone motherhood have led to simplistic and ineffective solutions that often perpetuate the problems they were designed to solve, rather than alleviating the poverty faced by the majority of lone mothers and addressed in various studies.

The absence of specific discourses on black lone mothers in recent Conservative government discourses appears welcome, but results from the targeting of those constructed as problematic within the nation. Since black families are constructed as outsiders in the nation, their current absence from discourses against lone motherhood is indicative of the exclusion of black families from Conservative constructions of the British nation.