Lurking in the shadows of this discourse about lone mothers and the underclass is an issue that we believe must be addressed head on: the issue of human agency, or in this instance, specifically, women’s agency. Right-wing ideologues, conservative politicians and anti­feminists lay much of the blame for the perpetuation of the underclass through lone motherhood on the agency exercised by women; they have no trouble suggesting that women make choices to have children outside marriage, and without the support of a man. Defenders of lone mothers in recent debates, however, particularly the poverty lobby and feminists, have found it much harder to acknowledge women’s agency.7 In challenging the individualizing of the problems associated with lone motherhood, their focus has been on the material, structural constraints that operate on poor, working-class women. In order to refute the claims of writers such as Murray and Halsey, they seem to have thought it necessary to emphasize the lack of choices open to women with few educational qualifications in run-down inner cities. They implicitly suggest that agency is something reserved for the well – off and educated, and that while small numbers of women may be choosing to become lone mothers, most lone mothers are the ‘victims’ of their social circumstances.

This position is made explicit by Lash (1994) in his discussion of the processes of individualization and reflexive modernization that can be discerned in contemporary western societies. He criticizes the thesis advanced by Beck (1994) and Giddens (1994) that agency is progressively being freed from structure and that individuals are increasingly engaging in the reflexive construction of their own life narratives, less hindered by tradition and structure than at previous moments in history. His challenge to Beck and Giddens takes the ‘single mother in the urban ghetto’ as the prime exemplar of the limits of reflexive modernization:

[J]ust how ‘reflexive’ is it possible for a single mother in an urban

ghetto to be? Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens write with insight

on the self-construction of life narratives. But just how much freedom from the ‘necessity’ of ‘structure’ and structural poverty does this ghetto mother have to construct her own ‘life narratives’?

(Lash 1994:120)

While we would not wish to suggest that women living in inner-city ‘ghettos’ can choose to escape structural poverty (but nor, probably, would Beck or Giddens), we do believe that there are women living in situations of structural poverty who are exercising agency, and consciously deciding to have children without depending on a male partner. In this sense they are undoubtedly reflexively constructing their own ‘life narratives’, and are not just the victims of their social circumstances. Moreover, they are not behaving very differently from middle-class unmarried women who are choosing to have children; the main difference is their poorer material circumstance. Working-class women with few educational qualifications who choose to have children outside marriage clearly make use of the meagre resources available to them to facilitate their decision: these resources include social housing and welfare benefits.

Thus we are in agreement with Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (1995) who argue that a ‘new type of unmarried mother’ is emerging, for whom a traditional partnership with a man is unnecessary. They cite Burkart et al. (1989), writing about Germany, where the rate of births outside marriage is considerably lower than in Britain or the United States:

An illegitimate child is less and less the unwanted pregnancy of earlier years, and ever more frequently the planned pregnancy of women over 25. Extra-marital fertility, then, is less and less a ‘misfortune’ of young women and rather an obviously planned or at least consciously accepted decision of older women.

(Burkart et al. 1989:34, cited in Beck and Beck-Gernsheim


Beck and Beck-Gernsheim acknowledge that this does not apply to a majority of women, but point to the striking change in attitudes of young women to unmarried motherhood; in 1962 89.4 per cent considered it important for a woman with a child to be married, whereas in 1983 only 40 per cent did (Allerbeck and Hoag 1985, cited in Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 1995:205). They also point to the explosion of articles in women’s magazines about lone motherhood, which not only proclaim that single mothers can be good and happy mothers, but also often offer advice on getting pregnant. There is also, they suggest, a significant theme in recent women’s writing, both fiction and autobiography, which sees love for a child replacing love for a man, with the mother-child dyad replacing the cohabiting heterosexual couple as the primary source of intimacy and fulfilment in women’s lives. In an individualizing society, where marriages and heterosexual partnerships are increasingly prone to failure, and where women are seeking identities for themselves, many women place trust in the permanence and stability of a relationship with a child.

We would add to Beck and Beck-Gernsheim’s analysis mention of the role of feminism in this process. It is surely a measure of the success of feminism over the past century that some women have the confidence to exercise a decision to rely on the state rather than an individual man in raising their children. Probably only a small proportion of ‘lone – mothers-by-choice’ would identify themselves as feminists (Gordon 1990), but the creation of a cultural climate in which women are more able to live autonomous lives, is, in part, the product of the slow but deep-rooted social change that feminism has promoted.


In this chapter we have explored the creation of a discourse that links lone mothers with the reproduction of an underclass. We have highlighted the role of the moral panic about juvenile crime in Britain in calling forth this discourse, and suggested that the perceived fiscal crisis of the welfare state and the conservative desire to reduce welfare spending have been harnessed to this discourse in both Britain and the United States. Conservative politicians in both countries, together with many liberal commentators, have reached a degree of consensus that consists of seeing the lone mother as the source of juvenile crime, welfare dependence and, ultimately, societal disintegration. The resultant call for social policy to go ‘back to basics’ (in Britain), or to ‘restore the American dream’ (in the USA) encapsulated the forlorn hope that a ‘golden age’ of moral turpitude, economic self-reliance and family values could be recovered. Murray’s and Halsey’s identification of the failure of a generation of fathers could appear to be merely a benign, if outdated, paternalism. We are less generous and it is our contention that the discourse that has developed around their work is firmly anti-feminist. Certainly in contrast to other attempts by Christian fundamentalists and moral crusaders to attach their anti-feminist campaigns to economic individualism, making use of the underclass concept has proved very successful.

This emergent consensus needs to be confronted because it constitutes an attack on feminism and, most importantly, on millions of women living in poverty. If the anti-feminism expressed by the discourse that we have analysed is to be effectively addressed and understood, we must not collude in the eradication of the agency of those who are most attacked by it. It must be recognized that lone mothers are actors in their own right and that many make active choices to be mothers.

Thus we wish to jolt the debate between right and left, anti­feminists and feminists, out of its dualisms of blame/exoneration, guilt/innocence, agent/victim. The reluctance of the poverty lobby and those sympathetic to lone mothers to address the role of agency is understandable, given the onslaught against them, but ironically it has created space for their critics. We believe that it is time to shift the agenda of the debate towards consideration of ways of enhancing the choices available to lone mothers, rather than seeking to deny them choices or to deny that they have ever exercised choice.