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.