Social constructions of lone motherhood
A case of competing discourses Ann Phoenix
Since the 1980s, the media in Britain and the United States have made many negative pronouncements on lone mothers. The notion of ‘feckless mothers’, who get pregnant in order to obtain welfare payments and housing and then rear children who are likely to become criminal, has been much aired by underclass theorists (such as Charles Murray 1990). Such notions have been picked up by politicians (including Bill Clinton as the Democratic president of the United States and Dan Quayle when he was the Republican vicepresident) and by various British Conservative Secretaries of State. While many of these pronouncements have used moral arguments, of ‘responsible parenting’ and maintenance of ‘traditional families’, their proposed remedies to these ‘problems’ have been designed to reduce the economic dependence on the state of lone parents (who are predominantly lone mothers; Burghes 1993) and their children. They have produced a construction of lone mothers as ‘feckless’, wilfully responsible for the poverty that has been well documented to be a feature of lone parenting (Bradshaw and Millar 1991; Burghes 1993) and undeserving of either public sympathy or economic support.
A major aim of the legislation and proposals regarding lone mothers (in Britain and the USA) has been to save the treasury money. Thus, in Britain there have been several measures to enforce ‘parental responsibility’. The most important are:
1 The setting up, in 1993, of the Child Support Agency (in operation of the 1991 Child Support Act) as an attempt to force errant fathers, rather than the welfare state, to be economically responsible for their children.
2 Holding parents responsible for their under-age children’s crimes and hence any penalties enforced on children. There are also now
regulations compelling parents to make provision for any children that their children (of up to 17 years of age) have (McLagan 1992).
3 In London, Wandsworth Council’s attempt to force lone mothers back to either their parents’ or male partner’s homes by offering them nothing other than temporary housing. This action was bolstered by legislation removing responsibility from local authorities for homeless people.
The assumption (by politicians and journalists) that there is still a popular consensus that lone mothers are problematic to the state, society and all ‘decent’ tax-payers has implications for the ways in which lone mothers are treated. If pervasive discourses on lone mothers construct them as problematic and irresponsible, then denouncements and financial penalties against those who are lone mothers are justified as necessary for the deterrence of others. Recent British discourses and policy share some similarities with those policies previously adopted in parts of the USA (Kahn and Kamerman 1988). There has also been some interest in Britain in the New Jersey (USA) policy of refusing Aid to Families with Dependent Children to those who have a second child while single and dependent on state provision.
Positive potential economic solutions, such as the provision of adequate and cheap child care so that lone mothers can take themselves out of the poverty trap through employment (Bradshaw and Millar 1991; Burghes 1993), have not been given the same consideration as punitive policies (see Millar, Chapter 5 in this volume, and Edwards and Duncan, Chapter 6; also Millar 1995).
Negative discourses of lone mothers are sufficiently pervasive to constitute a ‘discursive formation’ (Foucault 1972) where many pronouncements fit together to construct lone mothers as deviant and problematic. Popularized through the media, these constructions have taken on the appearance of objective reality, at least to some people. However, there have also been discursive constructions that have countered notions of lone motherhood as problematic and hence have prevented them from continuing to be widely accepted as ‘regimes of truth’ (Foucault 1980; Hall 1992).
The first part of this chapter examines the ways in which these competing discourses make lone motherhood a contested terrain. It argues that negative constructions do underpin relations of power between ‘lone mothers’ and others, but that there are other discourses that oppose such negative constructions and demonstrate that they do not provide a sound basis for the development of social policy.
The second part of the chapter considers the contradictions that have made discourses of ‘race’ silent in recent ‘moral panics’ about lone motherhood. Although there have been articles that have examined current popular discourses of ‘father-absence’ in the ‘Afro – Caribbean community’ (e. g. Alibhai-Brown 1994), ‘race’ has generally not featured in recent discourses on lone parents. This absence is notable because it is commonplace for writings that highlight ‘the problems of black people’, black people as problematic or black people in general to focus on the high percentages of black households that are lone-mother households (Younge 1995; Forna 1995). The Swann report on the ‘educational underachievement’ of black children largely blamed this on lone motherhood (Swann 1985). Lone motherhood and its concomitant ‘father absence’ has long been blamed for the ‘criminality’ of young men, particularly those who are black and/or working class (see the critique by Griffin 1993). While a confidential Cabinet office paper leaked to the Guardian in November 1993 stressed that there is no evidence to suggest that lone-parent families are ‘criminogenic’ (Hewitt and Leach 1993), notions that there are links between lone motherhood and children’s delinquency are commonplace. It is thus not surprising, for example, that Charles Murray (the New Right ideologue who has done most to disseminate the ‘underclass thesis’ in Britain) has argued that black people are at the forefront of underclass trends (Abbott and Wallace 1992). This part of the chapter argues that, although the silence on black families in recent attacks on lone mothers may seem positive, it is not necessarily so.