1993: THE YEAR OF THE LONE MOTHER
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).