Full-time motherhood implies that a woman is not required to work for pay, that someone—usually a man or sometimes the state—will provide for her and her child or children. It can also imply that she is barred—by legal means or ideologies—from taking on employment. Alternatively, it can signify that the woman will be doubly burdened by the requirement to conform to the ideal of full-time motherhood while additionally taking on some hours of employment as a secondary activity. In this case, if over time mothers have shifted from being dependants to providers, even if secondary ones, this is sometimes interpreted as a trend to the general deterioration of mothering conditions.8 However, this implies a very narrow view of mothering, defined simply by labour time. Yet the emotional care involved in mothering may be of a better quality when the job is not done full­time, or when the mother has other interests and is rewarded by them. The balance of advantage for women to be drawn between ‘mothering’ and ‘providing’ can be a complex and debatable one, and it needs careful appraisal. How often and in what proportions have mothers mothered full-time, who has done so, and in what conditions? Are there transformations over time and what have been their implications?

Around the turn of the century, male earnings were not sufficient to keep a family, and most working-class women had to work (Ross 1993). Yet this work by women was disparaged by legislators in the belief that working-class men would choose idleness if at all possible. Influential middle-class groups argued that, if women worked, men would not feel the responsibility to keep them and their children (see ‘Minutes of Evidence taken before the Royal Commission on the Poor Law’, 1910, in Lewis 1984:51; Hall 1979). Male respectability rested on the ability to keep a dependent wife (Lewis 1984:46-9). Most women agreed with this view, which was fuelled by debates about the family wage in 1912-13, in which feminists were as divided over support for the claim as they had been in the late nineteenth century (Barrett and Mclntosh 1980; Land 1980).

Another influence on married women’s employment in the first decades of this century was the infant welfare movement’s stress on full-time motherhood. Female employment rates at the turn of the century and in the inter-war years were about 32 per cent, the lowest since the middle of the nineteenth century (Hakim 1993: Table 1). The 1931 census shows that, while 70 per cent of single women worked, only 10 per cent of married women had full-time employment (Hakim 1979 in Glucksmann 1990:42). However, these numbers need to be considered with caution because they are gross national official measures. According to Glucksmann (1990), there were vast regional and industrial variations in the proportion of married women who worked. Although there was some adherence to the ideal of full-time motherhood due to social and legal pressures, such as the marriage bar,9 women had not only long been industrial wage workers but also had a long history of earning supplementary incomes by a variety of means, such as taking in lodgers (Davidoff 1979), washing and sewing in private households, or manufacturing homework alongside full-time work as housewives and mothers.10 Moreover, many married women had seasonal employment, not entering the census statistics (Glucksmann 1990).

The view that it was ideal for women to stay at home was widespread between the two wars, when new technology improved daily life, with cars and domestic labour-saving devices spreading to middle-class, servantless households. At the same time, women’s employment opportunities were enlarged with the establishment of the very new industries that depended on women as consumers: the mass-produced domestic goods (Glucksmann 1990). What accounts for the inter-war and post-war strength of the ideology of full-time motherhood at a time of labour shortages in crucial expanding industries? Was the ideology of full-time motherhood as overwhelmingly dominant as is pictured in the literature?

Despite firm convictions that mothers’ first duties were to their families, increasingly fewer women abandoned work after marriage, particularly after the Second World War. And the woman who did this most often was the working-class woman, who had physically hard factory work, not the one who had interesting and responsible work. As Riley (1983:145) remarks, ‘marriage as an alternative “career” to industrial boredom and low pay’ has attractions. Yet, despite the ideology to the contrary, more and more women and mothers took on paid employment. For instance, the participation rate of married women aged 25-35 grew from 9.9 per cent in 1921 to 13.8 per cent in 1931 and to 25.2 per cent in 1951 (Glucksmann 1990:290, note 11). Employment might have grown even faster if it were not for women being segregated into unattractive ‘female jobs’ and for the powerful impact of pronatalist and Fabian ideas discussed earlier (Hakim 1993; Lewis 1992a).

Mitchell (1975) argues that psychoanalytic theories were exploited in Britain around the time of the Second World War for ideological purposes. Riley (1983:90), while criticizing Mitchell on the grounds that it is impossible to separate ‘the innocence of a theory and the corruption of its deployment’, maintains that, despite the conservative character of contemporary psychoanalytic thought, it cannot be held solely responsible for the judgement that mothers should not work, even part-time, or make use of creches or nurseries.

Three major social trends have dramatically affected women in Britain in the post-war period. First, the proportion of the female labour force not leaving employment after marriage (mostly employed in part-time jobs since 1971) has risen sharply; second, the divorce rate has increased; and third, illegitimacy has risen rapidly. These changes have shifted the social construction of motherhood, particularly because divorce and illegitimacy have resulted in a steady rise of the lone-mother family.

Have these decisions regarding marriage, motherhood and employment been made in a context of increased opportunities for women? Why have women decided to mother without men and outside of marriage? Why have women decided to carry on in paid employment? How significant are the changes in employment patterns?

The growth in women’s labour force participation from about 30 per cent of the total workforce in 1950 to around 50 per cent in the early 1990s (Hakim 1993: Table 3) is certainly linked to smaller family sizes and to the concentration of childbearing into the earlier part of adult life (Gershuny and Brice 1994:44-7), as well as to the greater availability of part-time jobs. In the early twentieth century, women tended not to have formal employment when they had dependent children, but in the 1990s a proportion of about four in five women in their thirties who have children are also employed (Gershuny and Brice 1994:48). This makes a focus on employment and motherhood more than ever central to an analysis of patterns of mothering.

One argument is that married women’s desire to work has become a greater motivation for female employment than their husbands’ incomes or lack of income (Lewis 1992a; Roberts 1985; Morris 1990). For instance, the 1980s Women and Employment Survey (Martin and Roberts 1984) showed that 85 per cent of employed lone mothers were working from financial necessity, but only 14 per cent of married women reported that they would not be able to manage at all without their jobs. The centrality of working-mother status goes beyond material needs, although it remains crucially important for certain groups of women. Likewise, interest and enthusiasm for paid work seems to be greater among older women and those in better jobs (Roberts 1985; Martin and Roberts 1984).

However, despite women’s increased interest in participating in the labour market, a pattern of sexual segregation has persisted throughout the century. The 1992 British Household Panel Survey (Buck et al. 1994) indicated that the typical job status for a woman moves between part-time and full-time work, or from self­employment to waged employment, or between employment and unemployment. Women’s jobs have remained low paid and low status, apart from a relatively few career women. Lewis shows (1992a: 81) that in 1901 88 per cent of women in employment were in occupations dominated by women, in 1951 there were 86 per cent, and 84 per cent in 1971. However, Hakim (1994) maintains that between 1971 and 1991 a substantial drop in the degree and pattern of occupational segregation has occurred in Britain and other comparable countries, although occupational segregation persists. According to Humphries (1987) and Hakim (1994), the control of women’s sexuality has been a prime reason for such segregation. Hakim (1994) argues that better contraception has diminished job segregation after the 1960s because the social control of sexuality was relaxed once the risk of producing illegitimate children decreased. Yet, since illegitimacy has increased in this later period the correlation between sexual control and labour market segregation can only be partial. Women do not only react to social controls but actively make choices.

In the early 1990s, part-time work constituted about half of all female jobs, but there were twice as many women with children in part-time jobs as women with children in full-time jobs (GHS 1994). In Great Britain in 1981, 25 per cent of women with children under 5 had jobs (6 per cent full-time and 18 per cent part-time) and this rose to 43 per cent in 1992 (11 per cent full-time and 31 per cent part-time; GHS 1994).

The growth of women’s employment is also connected to two macroeconomic trends. Since the Second World War, relatively secure, full-time, male dominated jobs in manufacturing have been replaced by less secure female-dominated jobs in services. The trend to increased part-time female employment is linked to the growth of service employment in both public and private sectors. The other trend has been called the ‘flexibilization’ of the labour force. Increasing numbers of employers have sought irregular employment patterns to fit production fluctuations and market opportunities, thus expanding women’s jobs (Cousins 1994).

Casual labour also fits into this pattern since industrial flexibility often implies subcontracting. Women, mostly married immigrant women, are extensively involved in homework in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s. This is a continuity with the past. Rowbotham (1994) shows that legislation to control ‘sweated labour’, as homework was called in the nineteenth century, was linked to concerns to improve the health of mothers, the homeworker/w excellence then as now. Boris (1989) makes a similar point regarding the United States.

Labour market trends thus appear to fit well with women’s subordinate breadwinning role,11 enabling—or compelling—them to fulfil their family obligations and mothering demands by broken career patterns, flexible hours, and a lack of training, or availability for homework. It is also probable that labour market trends have built on the inadequacies of social arrangements for women’s proper career, pay and job security, notably the restricted provision of child care.

What is the significance of these employment trends for mothering?

Social definitions of women have historically been ambiguous about whether to treat women as wives and mothers or as workers. This ambiguity remains regardless of the relative stability in the level of female employment since the 1880s. In terms of full-time equivalents, the increase in female labour force participation was from 31 per cent in 1891 to only 39 per cent in 1991 (Hakim 1994). Yet social definitions of women, as a universal category, have shifted substantially over time. Unmarried women were basically treated as ‘surplus’ in Victorian times when a woman had her social existence defined in relation to marriage to a man. In the mid-nineteenth century, unmarried women were treated mainly as workers when young. But the marriage bar made a clear distinction between the married woman (wife and mother) and the unmarried woman (worker). In the 1980s and 1990s, marriage, motherhood and employment have more than ever before become intermeshed. Greater numbers who marry and mother have carried on in paid employment, although they may change from full-time to part-time work. Marriage, motherhood and employment have also become unlinked. While greater numbers of women have decided not to marry or to be mothers, also greater numbers have come either to mother but not to marry or to get out of marriage after being mothers.

Does this pattern of development constitute a devaluation of mothering? The ideology of full-time motherhood has been continuously emphasized, albeit with changing stress. Even though many women refused to fit the ideal, the social construction of full­time mothering nevertheless served as a shield for the social neglect of the needs of women as working mothers. Since caring and mothering have been socially constructed as female, the provision of social care is defined in relation to the socially defined needs of women. This implies that women in part-time jobs, whose employment is not regarded as important, are considered not to require public or employer provision (for example, child care) to facilitate their participation in the labour market.