Tag Archives: single motherhood

Single mums: the government, the law and the media hate you. GET MARRIED!!

Stigmatisation of lone mothers can be broken down into three basic forms: political/governmental, media, and academic/professional. Since the early 1990s the media have been fuelling discrimination and stigmatization of lone mothers as promiscuous, irresponsible and in poverty (Lewis 1998:7; Roseneil and Mann 1996). In the UK, the lone mother discourse is often confused with the teenage pregnancy discourse with myths about increasing rates of teenage pregnancy and most lone mothers being teenagers disseminated by both the media and politicians[1]; in fact teenage pregnancy has been steadily declining since the 1970s (Rowlingson and Mackay 2002:9) and only 3% of lone mothers are teenagers[2].The problem of academic/professional stigmatisation is less widely known; an example is Murray (1993) who described lone mothers as creators of the ‘underclass’; such theories have been discredited (Ellwood and Bane 1985; Garfinkel and McLanahan 1986; Bane and Jargowsky 1988.) The right wing think-tank, the Institute for Economic Affairs, deliberately published several books demonising lone mothers[3]. Discourses around lone motherhood frequently define lone mothers in problematic terms (Duncan and Edwards 1999; Foucalt 1972; Mann and Roseneil 1994), such as a ‘social problem’, a theme which occurs in a range of professional literature  (Popay, Rimmer and Rossitter 1983:23).  So far, we have looked at media stigmatization which led to the political and governmental discrimination against lone mothers. But the attitudes of ‘the system’ affect lone mothers on a much more personal level than government or media attitudes.

Duncan and Edwards (1997) have documented the way in which the competing discourses around lone motherhood frequently define lone mothers in problematic terms, such as a ‘social problem’ or ‘social threat’. Social workers may be influenced by these discourses as well as by discriminatory governmental or local council policies into believing single mothers are a problem

Vicki Harman’s article on how social workers deal with white single mothers of mixed race children reveals that the social workers involved interfered in single mothers’ lives unnecessarily and did not stop when they were repeatedly asked to leave the family alone. Harman warns against negative views of white lone mothers and highlights a need for social services to be more aware of social disapproval directed at white lone mothers of mixed children; she advocates training on discrimination experienced by lone white mothers. In another article, Harman claims that the presence of a mixed race child is seen as a symbol of sexual promiscuity – an assumption directed at lone mothers even more keenly, and resulting in women seeing them as a threat that they may ‘steal’ their partner. This resulted in withdrawal by the lone mothers from social networks.

Political/governmental stigmatisation is fuelled by, and in turn perpetuates, media stigmatisation. An example of political stigmatisation is the fact that the then UK Home Secretary suggested that [lone] unmarried mothers should give up their children for adoption[4].Lone mother families are not always seen as families. The Irish Constitution Art 41.2 states: “The State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.” This appears to be beneficial to lone mother families as family is highly valued. However Art 41.3.1 makes a clear political statement that lone mothers (and several other family forms) are non-families and it is the legal bond of marriage which separates the family that is to be protected from the family that is to be combatted: “The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which Family is founded and to protect it against attack [emphasis mine].”  Various forms of EU Member State governmental and local authority discrimination have been documented (Rowlingson and McKay 2002:92, Polakow, Halskov and Jorgensen 2001; Sinfeld 1994).

Some EU Member States openly favour the couple family and are trying to reduce the number of lone mother families, especially those headed by young lone mothers, which is a type of social engineering (Solinger 2000). The political, media and academic stigmatisation results in stigmatising social attitudes towards lone parents in the community and wider society (O’Higgins 1974, Darling 1984; Maraden 1973; May 2011). Furthermore, the stigma had devastating consequences in the case of Birmingham CC v H [1994], where a 16 year old lone mother was denied all future contact with her baby, a decision which according to Jackson[5] breached Art 9 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the UK became a party to in 1991. Jackson claims that the court were only able to reach such a decision because of the demonization of lone mothers in the media and political discourse.

A similar discrimination is found inthe Irish case of Flynn v Power[6] in which the fact that Ireland’s Employment Equality Act 1998 (S37) allows educational institutions to give more favourable treatment to an employee to protect the ethos of the institution meant that it was held that being an unmarried mother constituted a justified reason for immediate dismissal upon knowledge of the pregnancy.

Political Empowerment

In the run-up to the last UK General Election, the NGO Gingerbread launched a campaign, Let’s Lose the Labels, against stigmatisation of lone parents. 119 politicians including David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown signed Gingerbread’s pledge to “tackle prejudice against single parents”[7]. The German NGO, Association of Single Mothers and Fathers, initiated the campaign “Help! I am being helped” against all three types of stigmatisation which I identified above[8]. It also questions the presentation of all lone parents as a homogenous group (a point raised by Roll in the 1992 Report to the EU Commission.) Maybe it’d be a good idea for lone mothers, their children and their children’s fathers to take to the streets, similarly to SlutWalk and Take Back the Night, but with an emphasis on family as well as women. Because by stigmatising and causing prehudice against single mothers, the haters are destroying families and emotionally abusing children.

Even the words we use to describe lone mothers’ families are prejudicial:

Broken home. Broken family. Single-parent family (an assumption that parents should be partnered). “She’s on her own” (how ‘on your own’ can you be with a child?).

These families aren’t “broken”. Broken implies a need to be fixed, or a ‘partner-present’ norm that has been violated, or a loss.

I can’t conclude this. How do you conclude a blog post on a blog hardly anyone knows about, on an issue nobody cares about or even acknowledges exists? I look at the objectives of feminism and I don’t see a lot of hope, and I look at stigmatisation of lone mothers and I see very little hope. Even feminists haven’t picked up on this as an issue, because of the overwhelming number of issues that need to be dealt with. All I know is, stigma of lone mothers, sex activism, rape culture and the American abstinence/virginity culture are all linked and bound up together. This should mean that if we defeat one of these things, the rest will weaken. But, eventually, we will not only weaken them. We’ll get rid of them all.




[1] Lister, Ruth Back to the family: Family policies and politics under the Major government in Helen Jones and Jane Millar The Politics of the Family Avebury UK 1996 11-31

[1] Mary McIntosh social anxieties about lone motherhood and ideologies of the family: two sides of the same coin in Good Enough Mothering? Feminist perspectives on lone motherhood edited by Elizabeth Bortolaia Silva Routledge 2003 UK 148-156

[1] Jones, Helen and Millar, Jane Introduction in The Politics of the Family edited by Helen Jones and Jane Millar Avebury UK 1996 1-10

[1] Michael Howard, quoted in the Daily Express (7 October 1993)

[1] Jackson, Emily. 1997. The child mother. In Family law and family policy in the new Europe, ed. Jacek Kurczewski and Mavis Maclean, 43–56. Aldershot: Dartmouth









[8] Information for Single-parent families (No. 3 2010).


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