Job availability is crucial, even if lone mothers want paid work and are supported in this materially and normatively. Ermisch (1991) has shown that lone mothers’ employment does indeed fall in recession. Moreover, remarkably persistent horizontal and vertical occupational sex segregation, whereby women are concentrated in particular occupations and at lower status levels, means that the jobs available to women are generally the least well paid and secure (Millar and Glendinning 1989; Walby 1986). Often women’s jobs are not sufficient to provide adequately for one household, especially if expensive child care also has to be bought. Moreover, black women are doubly disadvantaged in the labour market— constrained by both race and gender (Phizacklea 1982). The supply of jobs is spatially structured through local labour markets and, as with neighbourhoods, there is considerable variability in lone mothers’ employment rates at this level (taking District Councils as measuring units).4 In 1991, the proportion of lone mothers in paid work varied from 25 per cent to 70 per cent, and from 6 per cent to 29 per cent for full-time employment. High employment areas (over 50 per cent in employment and 20 per cent full-time) included the Lancashire cotton towns and the Potteries in Staffordshire, as well as areas in the East Midlands around Northampton and Leicester, west London and parts of the so-called western crescent of recent high growth stretching around London, from Cambridge through Berkshire to Southampton. Low employment areas (below 30 per cent in employment and 10 per cent full-time) included Mersey side, most of Wales, the North East, South Yorkshire, much of the South West and parts of East Anglia.

There are also temporal variations in the spatial patterning of lone mothers’ employment. While the employment rate for lone mothers on average declined over the 1980s, this decline was especially marked in the conurbations. Elsewhere, lone mothers’ employment has been more stable, fluctuating with the economic cycle (Bartholomew et al. 1992). This suggests that the particular features of local labour markets can also facilitate or constrain lone mothers’ employment.

Mothers generally have limited job search areas because of domestic, transport and sexual harassment constraints (Pickup 1988), and these are likely to be even more severe for lone mothers. However, while lone mothers may face particular difficulties in taking up paid work, their relative propensity to take paid work varies within different areas of Britain in much the same way as it does for women as a whole. The combination of occupational gendering with spatial divisions of labour means that those areas with high rates of lone- mother employment are those areas with a tradition of women’s full­time work. The Lancashire cotton towns, the Potteries and central Scotland are among the leading examples of areas where women have traditionally been seen as paid workers as much as homemakers (see Lewis 1989). Areas with no tradition of women as paid workers, often with declining labour markets, such as Merseyside, the North East and South Wales, show low employment rates (Duncan 1991a).

Yet in many of the areas most favourable for women’s full-time employment, there has been economic decline. Women’s participation in the cotton textiles labour force in Lancashire, for example, has always been very high, but this labour force now scarcely exists. None the less, full-time paid work by women, including lone mothers, is among the highest in the country. Conversely, some areas where there has been economic growth, such as East Anglia or parts of the western crescent, do not show a similar trend in women’s employment. This suggests that regional gender divisions of labour are intimately bound up with other social changes. Women’s propensity to take up paid work is not just a function of local economic structures, but reflects the way women, especially mothers, are socially integrated into society—as workers and/or homemakers. (See Duncan 1991a and Mark-Lawson 1988 for regional differences in Britain; Duncan 1991b on west inner London; Whatmore 1991 on farming areas; and Sackmann and Haussermann 1994 on Germany.)

Thus a crucial context for lone mothers’ decisions and abilities to try for paid work or not is the local ‘gender contract’ (Hirdmann 1990). This is a set of social expectations, discourses and possibilities, linked to the gendered material and normative moral rationalities identified above, affecting whether women are positioned locally as paid workers and/or mothers and homemakers. Cross-national differences in women’s labour-force participation can also be explained in similar terms.