The thesis of the degradation of mothering agues that motherhood is an increasingly devalued activity within capitalism and patriarchy. The continuous process of degradation is loosely defined around three main features:

1 Work has been intensified by the creation of a multitude of new tasks and raised standards of child care.

2 Emphasis has shifted from care for large numbers of children towards higher quality care for fewer children.

3 Women are compelled to undertake waged labour, regardless of mothering, because of the demands of consumer capitalism, the rising costs of children, and the flight of men from commitment.

The implication of this theory of degradation is that women have increasingly lost control over their own lives and their mothering.

My concern has been to explore the current usefulness and accuracy of this thesis. Can the degradation of mothering be observed in twentieth-century Britain? How do the shifts in the key aspects of mothering, sexuality and reproduction, employment and child care relate to the degradation thesis?

In discussing the thesis of the degradation of mothering I have argued that there is no clear ‘progress’ in women’s positions throughout history. The contours of autonomy and submission have shifted and changed while patriarchies have also been reconstructed, though not necessarily strengthened. Thus, I stress that the paradox in views of the ‘marginalization of women’, or the ‘degradation of mothering’, is that whenever female autonomies are developed they are simply subsumed into an assumed pattern of recurrent submission. In this context, lone mothering, an increasingly important aspect of motherhood in the late twentieth century, can be seen in very different ways. Does it, for instance, represent an abandonment of women by men or a sustainable alternative of autonomous mothering by women? Clearly, the interpretation follows from how mothering in general is conceptualized.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, there has been a movement from dependency on marriage for a majority of women, and on motherhood as a ‘natural’ consequence of marriage, to an increasing choice about whether, when and how often to have children, and of having and keeping them with or without a man. This has not been a linear process. Nor has this process been externally imposed on women. Declining birth rates appear to have resulted primarily from women’s own actions, often without knowledge of male partners, rather than from innovation and availability of technological devices (Ross 1993).

There has been no major change in women’s employment rates: large numbers of women have always worked for pay (Ross 1993; Hakim 1993). Yet mothers in employment have been an increasingly larger proportion. A pattern of occupational sex segregation has also persisted, albeit with different contours.

Lack of concern for the needs of women who mother has been another continuity. This is a core element in the degradation thesis because the absence of social provision results in a double burden for the large number of mothers who work for pay. Critics of the ‘marginalization of women’ theory argue that waged labour is an especially harsh imposition upon wives and mothers. Accordingly, there is an unstated assumption that mothers should have the right not to work in paid employment (Ferguson 1983, 1989; Rothman 1994). Hence, they implicitly endorse the ideology of full-time motherhood. If mothers should not work, should child care be available to them? How can criticisms of the neglect of the needs of working mothers be properly voiced when there is also a view that waged/salaried labour itself is an imposition?

The logic of the thesis of the degradation of mothering points to lone mothers as the product of the flight of men (Ferguson 1983,1989; cf. Brown 1981). This has some resonance and may apply to many cases. But it also relies on the view that motherhood and mothering are increasingly controlled by men, and that women have continuously lost status and autonomy. However, this is a very partial picture and it seems dangerous to consider lone mothers simply as women who were abandoned by men, victims of rejection. Lone mothering is not simply suffered by women (see Edwards and Duncan, Chapter 6 in this volume).

More generally, the assumption of the degradation of mothering presents women as being passively constructed through history. But mothers are, like other agents, active subjects of history, who create cultural meanings and moral values for themselves and for others (Everingham 1994). Moreover, the degradation thesis also assumes that women do not shape culture through their mothering, because mothers simply reinforce dominant values defined by men and public institutions. Responses to this issue vary widely. Should it be resolved by taking mothering away from the world of men (Kittay 1983; Young 1983), for instance, or by persuading men to do mothering (Held 1983), or by getting mothering away from women (Bart 1983; Allen 1983)?

All these strategies have been explored in the feminist literature and cannot be resolved here. However, the experiences discussed in this chapter do suggest certain conclusions.

First, mothering is not natural. An account of the transformation of mothering over time shows that mothering is contingent, but also that it evolves in non-linear ways. What mothers do while mothering matters strongly because, whether mothers make autonomous choices or fall under the domination of men, they continually recreate mothering and the conditions under which mothering happens. In this regard, I have argued for the need for more adequate assessments of control and autonomy within feminist discourses. Tensions between them are likely to result in contradictory processes of gains and losses.

Second, mothering is a complex and shifting issue that involves much more than mothers and children. It encompasses ideologies, resources, labour markets, technological changes, men, law, choices and obligations. Shifting social constructions of mothering are closely related to the provision of caring, because mothering is defined in relation to the needs of women as defined by society. The de-packaging of marriage, motherhood and employment alters the social construction of mothering and the definition of the need for social provisions of caring.

Third, rather than construct mothering as an essential psychological or moral attribute of women, constructions of mothering are more adequately addressed in a relational context: the dependencies of children and mothers parallel their autonomies from one another. While the agencies of both create the mothering relationship, this is contingent on structural factors. Dependency and autonomy are not just materially created.

One consequence of constructing mothering in a way that is not centred on women, however, is that it may imply women’s loss of a particular kind of control. Since core identities are often constructed on the basis of being a mother and doing mothering, such losses may be painful and may involve large numbers of women. Yet the identification of women with the ‘essence’ of motherhood seems to have brought no gains for women in other spheres of social life. Nostalgic views of mothering risk stressing losses rather than contradictory shifts, gains and redefinitions. They also underestimate change and fail to take sufficient account of the power of women in shaping mothering in ways that suit their own needs and interests.