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This compelling book destroys the derogatory images of single mothers that too often prevail in the media and in politics by creating a rich, moving, multidimensional picture of who these women really are. Ruth Sidel interviewed mothers from diverse races, ethnicities, religions, and social classes who became single through divorce, separation, widowhood, or who never married; none had planned to raise children on their own. Weaving together these women’s voices with an accessible, cutting-edge sociological and political analysis of single motherhood today, Unsung Heroines introduces a resilient, resourceful, and courageous population of women committed to their families, holding fast to quintessential American values, and creating positive new lives for themselves and their children. What emerges from this penetrating study is a clear message about what all families—two-parent as well as single parent—must have to succeed: decent jobs at a living wage, comprehensive health care, and preschool and after-school care.
In a final chapter, Sidel gives a broad political-economic analysis that provides historical background on the way American social policy has evolved and compares the situation in the U.S. to the social policies and ideologies of other countries.
Moving Beyond Stigma
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By definition, of course, we believe the person with a stigma is not quite human. On this assumption we exercise varieties of discrimination, through which we effectively, if often unthinkingly, reduce his life chances. Erving Goffman, Stigma
Single motherhood is synonymous with deviant motherhood. Martha Fineman, The Neutered Mother, the Sexual Family and Other Twentieth Century Tragedies
I was raised by a single parent. My mother died after a long illness when I was 5. My father was left with two sons, ages 19 and 21, and a very young daughter. Born in the United States, the youngest son of immigrant parents, he had climbed from the poverty of his childhood to comfortable middle-class status by working indefatigably since he was a boy (yes, he did shine shoes and sell newspapers from a very young age on the streets of East Boston), eventually starting and building his own business. In the years following my mother's death at the beginning of World War II, my brothers both left home, one to go into the army and the other to get married. Shortly afterward my father and I moved from the large apartment we had all shared in a nearby suburb to a smaller one in downtown Boston. Except for my four years at college just outside of Boston, he and I lived together there until I got married at age 22—in the bay window of the living room overlooking Beacon Street and the Public Garden.
We were fortunate to be able to have a housekeeper who arrived week days around 11 in the morning and stayed until after dinner. She was a friend and an ally, but there was no doubt that my father was in charge. He made the decisions; he set the tone. He gave a great deal and he expected a great deal. He expected a certain seriousness of purpose, good sense, and grown-up behavior. He expected chores and errands to be done right and done in good time. He was home nearly every evening, and when he had other plans he told me where he was going and what time he would be back. He had female friends, particularly one much younger woman who also became a good friend of mine. But he was my only parent; he had all the power. He was generous, loving, caring, irreverent, and funny but often unpredictable. He would become enraged when you least expected it and remain calm when you dreaded the angry outburst. What was perhaps most difficult was that there was really no one else—no one to go to, no one to intercede, no one to calm him down, no one to reassure me.
But I was fortunate. My two older brothers always remained a presence in my life. One took me to night games to see the Red Sox and has been my political mentor since I was barely a teenager and a true friend all these years; the other, something of a disciplinarian, was concerned and loving, the person you could really count on, not just when I was growing up but since I have been an adult as well. We have always been a real family.
What is most fascinating is that my father was never vilified, never criticized for being a single parent. In fact, my father was widely admired and praised. Because he was raising a daughter alone, he was seen as caring, self-sacrificing, truly committed to his family. No one ever suggested (I don't think they would have dared) that he should either work or not work outside the home, relinquish any social life (quite the contrary!), or not leave me in the care of others to go on vacation. Moreover, there was never a suggestion that I might behave in ways attributed by some to the children of single parents—that I might become pregnant as a teenager, that I might fail in school or engage in "aggressive, acting-out behavior" or in "screaming outbursts in class." The perception of my father differed dramatically from that of millions of single mothers largely because of his gender: he was a man and therefore given respect, particularly for raising a child and for dealing with all the domestic details connected with maintaining a household. But other differences also contributed to his positive—some might say heroic—image in the larger community; most obviously, he became a single parent through the tragic death of his relatively young wife. Perhaps even more important, he was white and affluent and therefore exempt from many of the negative stereotypes that have defined single mothers over the decades.
The contrast between the admiration my father received because of his role as a single parent and the way millions of single mothers are perceived and treated is both stark and telling. Precisely the same role that won him praise and commendation earns single mothers hostility and condemnation. Not only do single mothers have the sole or primary responsibility for feeding, clothing, housing, and nurturing their children, often with grossly inadequate social and economic resources, but they must function in an environment in which they are constantly being judged and criticized—a social and political context in which they are systematically stereotyped, stigmatized, and even despised.
Critics tell us again and again what is wrong with single mothers, how pathological their behavior is, how they deviate from the norm. They are often portrayed as "dependent" rather than "independent," as lazy rather than hardworking, as unworthy and undeserving. The culture is rife with denigrating descriptions of women raising children on their own. Single mothers are stigmatized on multiple grounds—for their race, their ethnicity, and their class as well as for raising children without a husband. Dichotomous narratives divide many women, particularly black women, into the "good" and the "bad," those who are lax with their children or those who are too strict, those who are perceived as overtly and excessively sexual or those who are perceived as hostile and even castrating toward men.
John Ashcroft, then a senator and later, during the first term of President George W. Bush, attorney general of the United States, wrote in the St. Louis Post Dispatch in the mid-1990s that the inner city is the site of "rampant illegitimacy" and a "space devoid of discipline." According to the social scientist Charles Murray, poor women are "lazy due to years of government programming" and "crazed trying to meet their own selfish needs." The syndicated radio talk show host Michael Savage stated in June 2004 that "people on welfare should not have the right to vote, while they are on welfare. Period. End of story." Former U.S. representative Jim DeMint, from South Carolina, a month before his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004, declared that unwed pregnant women and single women who are pregnant and living with their boyfriends should be barred from working or teaching in public schools. Journalists have referred to adolescent motherhood as a "cancer" and have described teenage mothers as "breed[ing] criminals faster than society can jail them." According to David Blankenhorn, the author of Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem, "Father absence is the engine driving our biggest social problems." And Wade Horn, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, told the Washington Post that "Growing up without a father is like being in a car with a drunk driver."
Adam Walinsky, a lawyer concerned about violent crime in American culture, predicts that "black youths" born in the mid-1980s will become violent criminals because "three-fifths of them were born to single mothers, many of whom were drug-addicted." Claiming further that "unprecedented numbers will have been subjected to beatings and other abuse; and most will have grown up amid the utter chaos prevailing in black city neighborhoods," he warns that these conditions "have already assured the creation of more very violent young men than any reasonable society can tolerate and their numbers will grow inexorably for every one of the next twenty years." Yet contrary to Walinsky's dire forecasts, which rest ultimately on his denigration of single mothers, crime has declined significantly in the United States over the past two decades; the fall has been particularly dramatic in New York City.
Single mothers are thus often defined as deviants who are dangerous to their children, to the well-being of their family and of the family, and to the wider society as well. Proclaiming some people deviant has a dual function: while making explicit the norms of the culture and pressuring members of the society to conform to those norms, it also draws others in the population closer together. As the writer Rachel Brownstein says of herself and her college friends, "We laughed at joiners; it kept us joined." But clearly not all single parents are viewed as deviants. Single fathers are often seen as exemplary citizens, acting in ways that far exceed society's expectations of them and thereby meriting honor and respect in the community. Moreover, to label individuals as deviant lifts one of their characteristics above all others: as their most important or significant quality, it makes them known as living beyond the boundaries of the community. The sociologist Kai Erikson notes, "When the community nominates someone to the deviant class, it is sifting a few important details out of the stream of behavior he has emitted and is in effect declaring that those details reflect the kind of person he 'really' is." Thus, the single mother may be honest, kind, hardworking, devoted to her children, and even God-fearing; but if she has had a child outside of marriage, perhaps as a teenager, she is likely to be labeled deviant.
In the widespread and often vitriolic discussion of single motherhood, little mention is made of heroic single parents like the mother of the writer and musician James McBride, a white woman who raised twelve mixed-race children and sent them all to college, many to graduate school, to become doctors, teachers, scientists, and professors. As McBride writes, "She was the commander in chief of my house ... the chief surgeon for bruises ... war secretary ... religious consultant ('Put God first'), chief psychologist ... and financial adviser ('What's money if your mind is empty!')." Or like the mother of Barack Obama, elected senator from Illinois in 2004, who describes the parent who raised him as "the single constant in my life." In his 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, Obama searches both for the father who left him to return to Kenya when he was 2 years old, a "boy's search for his father," and for "a workable meaning for his life as a black man." But while the central focus is on his absent father, Obama stresses in the preface to the 2004 edition—issued after his electrifying keynote speech before the Democratic National Convention that year catapulted him onto the national stage—that it was his mother who was central to the person he has become: "I know that she was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and that what is best in me I owe to her." Similarly, Vivyan Adair, a professor of sociology at Hamilton College, recalls being raised by a poor mother who "even in the depths of poverty loved, nurtured, and somehow provided for her children with energy and panache." She points out that the omnipresent "dichotomous and hierarchical" narratives "orchestrate my story as one of chaos, pathology, promiscuity, illogic, and sloth.... They write the official story of who I am, but they are not and will never be, me." "Energy and panache," the words with which Adair captures her mother's way of parenting, are almost never used to describe single mothers and certainly not poor ones.
Narratives that combine the ascribed characteristics of race, class, and ethnicity with the immediate causes of single motherhood have constructed a presumed hierarchy of single mothers—rising from poor women receiving public assistance who are often labeled "welfare mothers" and usually thought of as black, to working-class and middle-class mothers who are often assumed to be separated and divorced, to upper-middle-class widows usually thought of as white. Women seen as victims of particularly loutish or brutal behavior—spousal abuse, infidelity, abandonment, or lack of economic support—may be viewed with greater sympathy, but single mothers nevertheless are clearly assigned different ranks. This hierarchy of stigma segregates single mothers ideologically from the rest of the population by stereotyping and denigrating them as deviant at the same time as it separates them from one another. Thus, while single mothers are frequently perceived as an inferior group who harm their children and even pose a danger to the wider society, the various groups of single mothers often share little or no sense of solidarity. The barriers of class, race, ethnicity, and personal circumstance that divide us all keep them apart as well. Divorced, middle-class mothers struggling to find after-school care for their children may feel they have little in common with poor, inner-city women also struggling to find after-school care for their children. Widows trying to cope with unexpected tragedy generally do not perceive never-married young mothers who accidentally became pregnant as part of their reference group, though in all likelihood they similarly have experienced wrenching changes and profound sorrow in their lives. Moreover, because of the cultural propensity in the United States to see virtually all human behavior in individualistic terms, the economic, social, and cultural causes of single motherhood are frequently overlooked—both by the wider society and by single mothers themselves. The attitude in many quarters is that they have no one to blame but themselves.
It is ironic and particularly poignant that single mothers are being denigrated for what could be cited as their greatest strength: staying and caring for their children under almost all circumstances, frequently at great cost to themselves. While men all too often walk away—not only young, undereducated, underemployed husbands and fathers but employed solid citizens as well—the women stay and nurture, commonly while providing the family's sole support. Many are women who reject the alternative of abortion and instead commit themselves to twenty or more years of caregiving. Conditions may be nearly impossible, sadness may be inescapable, their dreams of higher education and professional work may need to be postponed or permanently discarded, but the women stay and cope as best they can. And yet they are criticized, castigated, and derided—for being responsible and devoted caregivers.
What does it do to people to be defined so negatively by the wider society? What does it mean to be defined by others very differently than one perceives oneself? Do the labeled, the stigmatized, internalize the negative version of themselves set out over and over again in the wider culture, or do they try to hold on to a more balanced, more accurate view of their lives? Does the relentless denigration cause individuals to become alienated from themselves, or does it cause them to become alienated from the larger society that mocks and derides them? One is reminded of the "double consciousness" experienced by blacks living in white America, as movingly described by W. E. B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk: "the Negro is ... gifted with second sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness." According to Susan Stanford Friedman, a professor of English and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, women are in the same situation: "Not recognizing themselves in the reflections of cultural representation, women develop a dual consciousness—the self as culturally defined and the self as different from cultural prescription."
Single mothers are criticized not only because of their status but also because of how they arrived at that status. Most fundamentally, any family that does not include a man is faulted as deficient, defective, disrupted, broken. As one single mother of two, a widow, told me, "You're not seen as complete; you're not seen as a family unit. You're missing one of the points on a geometric figure and that makes you open and vulnerable." Mothers who become single through divorce are criticized for harming their children by divorcing and for supposedly acting on frivolous, shallow motives, selfishly putting their desires above their children's needs and well-being. Another theme in the litany against single mothers blames pregnancy outside of marriage on their unbridled sexuality. At the core of that accusation is the characterization of single mothers as irresponsible—for conceiving as teenagers or at inappropriate times in their lives, or for becoming involved with unreliable men who will not be stable husbands and fathers. In short, they should have known better, should have behaved differently. This view implies that these women have genuine choices—that they, for example, could have chosen a "responsible" man rather than an "irresponsible" one, one with a decent job rather than one with no job and few future prospects. The critics presume that young women should be able to figure out which men are "marriageable" and which are not good marriage material, to use the terms of the sociologist William Julius Wilson, and that they can act on that knowledge. Impoverished women, particularly poor women of color, are castigated on multiple grounds—for not controlling their sexuality, for not choosing men more wisely, and for having children when they cannot afford to provide for them adequately.
Excerpted from Unsung Heroines by Ruth Sidel. Copyright © 2006 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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1. Moving Beyond Stigma
2. Genuine Family Values
4. Resilience, Strength, and Perseverance
5. “Everybody Knows My Grandma”: Extended Families and Other Support Networks
6. “I Have to Do Something with My Life”: Derailed Dreams
7. “I Really, Really Believed He Would Stick Around”: Conflicting Conceptions of Commitment
8. An Agenda for the Twenty-first Century: Caring for All Our Families