Stigma against single mums: How it all began

How did lone motherhood and young motherhood come to be demonised? Well, I got curious about two years ago and headed to my university library to find out. After months of research, I knew more than I wanted to know. I decided to summarise everything into a blog post, and here is my expose on what happened:

 

In the early 1990s and beyond, the media (notably, the tabloids but broadsheets and even the BBC have also been implicated by sociologists) have been fuelling – and arguably, creating – discrimination and stigmatization of lone mothers. McIntosh claims that the media outcry amounts to a moral panic in her essay “Social anxieties about lone motherhood and ideologies of the family”.  Examples of the moral panics are The Sunday Times’ article ‘Alarm over Baby Boom’ on 8 January 1992, which sent the message that all lone mothers are unmarried teenagers. In July 1993 the same paper contained a pull-out section titled “Wedded to Welfare: do they want to marry a man or the state?” with an image of a woman with several children dragging a man on whose face were the words ‘social security’ to the altar.

 

The murder of James Bulger in early 1993 was a shining example of the fact that children of lone mother families and those of attached mother families are the same; one of the murderers was from a lone parent family while the other was from a two parent family. One might expect the moral panic to have ended once this fact was known. However, this only fuelled the moral panic even more. Some sociologists even claim that the Bulger murder started stigmatization of lone mothers because the media focussed on the fact that one of the murderers was from a lone mother family while ignoring the fact that the other murderer was not although both ten year olds were equally culpable. According to reports, 250 people turned up on the day of the hearing to throw missiles and scream abuse at the murderers despite the fact that they were children, and years later the boys, now in their teens, had to be released under new identities to protect them from would-be murderers who were at large in society and had threatened to murder them (as a revenge for committing murder). Taking all of this into account, it may be possible that the extreme hatred directed against the children – one of whom was from a lone mother family – fuelled hate towards single mothers in general. It has been proposed that the Bulger case encouraged the media to turn on lone mothers for raising violent sons and popularise the myth that female parents are unable or unwilling to discipline their male children.

However, it is obvious that media stigmatization of lone mothers was already well underway in 1991 and most social scientists are of the opinion that the Bulger murder simply worsened the problem but did not significantly change the course of media stigmatization. The tabloids were already accusing lone mothers of producing criminal sons in 1991, due to an increase that year in car crime and joyriding on certain council estates, which then declined.

The tabloids – especially The Guardian – ignored the opinion of the majority of academics and devoted a lot of print space to the controversial American sociologist and underclass theorist Charles Murray, who sees illegitimacy as “the single most important social problem of our time.” (Murray 1993). Murray has done more than anyone to promote the ‘underclass thesis’ in Britain; his theory is that lone mothers are giving birth to a criminal underclass and that black people are at the forefront of the underclass trends. He proposed that the only solution is the abolition of welfare benefits/social security.

The British tabloids boosted Murray’s career and from an unknown maverick he became an academic superstar and recognised expert in the UK, USA and Australia, despite the fact that to date there are only two or three other social scientists who agree with his concept of an underclass, and still less agree that the abolition of the welfare state is a good idea or even a legitimate goal in a democratic society. Ironically, before receiving superstar status in the UK tabloids, Murray’s 1984 publication about how welfare benefits cause lone parenthood was completely discredited by many social scientists (Ellwood and Bane 1985; Garfinkel and McLanahan 1986; Bane and Jargowsky 1988.)

Murray’s theories caused a lot of controversy among his peers and for obvious reasons are viewed as immoral and even dangerous. He has also been seen as a right-wing ideologue or politician rather than an academic due to the gap between his theories and actual evidence, and the very gendered and racialized nature of his theories.

The UK right-wing think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) published Murray’s work along with five other authors who stigmatised lone mothers. The publications were made from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s.

The IEA, as well as publishing Murray’s work, also published other very similar books which demonized lone mothers: ‘Families Without Fatherhood’ (which contains a foreword by A.H. Halsey) was published in 1993, ‘Farewell to the Family? Public Policy and family breakdown in Britain and the USA’ (Morgan 1995), and ‘Rising Crime and the Dismembered Family: How conformist intellectuals have campaigned against common sense’ by Norman Dennis, 1993.

Political stigmatisation

Michael Howard, the then Conservative Home Secretary, (supported later by Environmental Secretary John Gummer) was quoted in the Daily Express (7 October 1993) as suggesting that it would be a good thing if more unmarried mothers gave up their children for adoption rather than raising them themselves. This starkly reveals the ‘marriage divide’ present in the minds of politicians; Michael Howard was suggesting that only unmarried mothers should give up their children. He would not suggest that married mothers should. And he thought it was preferable for newborns to be torn away from their loving birth mothers and grow up never knowing their true identity and birth parents – for the sole reason that the birth mother was unmarried. That such an important decision, the relinquishing of a loved, wanted baby, should hinge on a marriage certificate! And in our time, in Great Britain!

Foreshadowing the Conservative ‘Back to Basics’ campaign, the then Secretary of State for Wales John Redwood’s comments (including the infamous ‘there’s not many fathers round here’) were made following his visit to St Mellons, Cardiff in July 1993 and promoted right-wing familial ideology as well as seeking to cut public spending on lone parent families.

And so it has continued, with the conflating of lone mothers and teenage mothers, the ‘combatting of teenage pregnancy’, the media portrayals of benefit cheating lone mothers and the promotion of the illogical idea that having a baby young ‘ruins your life/future/career’ – an idea that results in more abortions to young women.

Thanks, IEA and Charles Murray.

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One thought on “Stigma against single mums: How it all began

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