In praise of feckless, scrounging single mothers

Anyone who has raised a child on their own knows it's a tough job. Why is there such a stigma attached to single parenthood?

Single mothers - what are we gonna do with them, eh? They prance around, brazenly raising their children right under our faces, struggling for money and taking up school places with their kids who will just end up dealing drugs in the primary school playground anyway. What a scourge on society these women are, who must have immaculately conceived in a selfish bout of benefit-claiming spite and now stuff their families’ faces with free school meals served on golden platters. And how bad at mathematics they must be, to have surely calculated that having that family was financially worth doing, only to find that their income support barely stretches to the school uniforms. Ha! That’ll learn ‘em!

This sort of stigma might sound outdated, but it’s no longer confined to the fallback chat in the boarding school common room. In our experience, it’s actually accelerated during the recession, big-time. For one thing, the Guardian reported that the biggest losers from the Budget will be single mothers, who face losing their benefits if they don’t work longer hours which are not justified by the skyrocketing price of childcare. Women, part-time workers and parents found their purse strings tightened after changes to the welfare system, and the majority of single mothers tend to tick all of these boxes. Meanwhile, in times of austerity, the phrase “single mother” is often treated as if it were synonymous with “socially irresponsible” - or, if you really want to push the boat out, that charming label “scrounger”.

In the US, prejudice against single motherhood can be even more pronounced. American films often make a nod towards the idea that “single mother” is a polite term for “stripper” or “prostitute”, while national reports into crime statistics are often juxtaposed with statistics on single parent families. This practice is so widely recognised and accepted that the Atlantic posted an article a few days ago claiming that “Single mothers can’t be scapegoated for the murder rate anymore”. The LA Times on Saturday similarly published a piece where the writing journalist spoke about the reaction to an article she wrote crediting single mothers with helping to re-elect Obama. Apparently, a lot of people had seen that as “tacit encouragement of one parent homes over two”, which she felt that she had to explicitly clarify was not the case or her agenda. This journalist had raised her children as a single parent following the death of her husband, referring to herself as a “single mother” along the way. One commenter, however, informed her that widowed or divorced women “don’t count” as single mothers, because “single mother” is a label exclusively reserved for shaming people who had dared to procreate out of wedlock. The implication was that she should differentiate herself from these vile harridans who can’t even officiate themselves under God before popping out a sprog, and that she should go about this differentiation by declaring herself a “widowed mother”, whether she wanted to regularly reveal personal details about her life to strangers or not. 

Anyone who has singlehandedly raised children knows that it is far from a walk in the park. We’ve never attempted to do it ourselves, but we were both raised by strong, hardworking, inspirational single mothers. And there are still an astonishing amount of people we have come across - young and old - who have voiced their opinion that those like our mothers have single-(parent)-handedly destroyed the nation and ripped the taxable wages right out of their hands. Like so many conservative arguments, they centre around the idea that a mere "lifestyle choice" is to blame for self-imposed hardship, despite the fact that if you could actually and genuinely choose your lifestyle, most people would go for the “champagne breakfasts and high society” one rather than the “Primark t-shirt covered in baby sick at the 5am feed” one. It’s a nice little argument to deny people support and rights, but it doesn’t really bear out that someone might choose a damp, cramped flat in Nottingham over a palace in Chelsea because they just love the radical lifestyle allowed by walls that grow mushrooms.

Now, it hasn’t slipped our attention that single dads exist, and that in most articles about single parenthood, they hardly ever get a look in. This is partly because they comprise a tiny percentage of single parents, which is, of course, no reason to ignore them. Most single fathers - like most single mothers - are dedicated, conscientious people who try to do right by their children in the face of crippling social discrimination. And when single dads disappear from the equation, it can be as much an indicator of misogyny as it is denial that the fathers themselves exist. In 2011, the Daily Mail headlined findings that Britain has a lower number of coupled families than our Euro-counterparts with “Single mother Britain: UK has most lone parents of any major European nation”. The implication was, of course, that no single fathers exist, and that women doing things independently are once again ruining things for everyone. Right then.

When fathers do get a media mention, it tends to have a less judgmental slant (of course, custody issues in the courtroom are another matter entirely and do often favour mothers, for a myriad of equally unfair reasons.) There is a particular kind of fury reserved for the mothers, and usually an implicit sympathy for the fathers, as if by sticking around in the first place, these dads must be a truly decent bunch and a great example of manhood. Not so for the mother majority, who are all too often left to shoulder the burden of national murder rates and snide remarks about sex workers alone. In our time at the helm of the Vagenda, we’ve also experienced some (admittedly crackpot, but disturbingly regular) assurances that “men nowadays” are suffering psychologically (read: becoming “feminine”, submissive, or even - gasp - gay) because of a prevalence of single mothers. One even went so far as to say that if a man was raised by a single mother, he would make an “unsuitable husband” in the future. Could it be that these unmarried mums are part of the Gay Agenda too? They aren’t living in a nuclear family with a white picket fence, so we’ll go with “probably”.

Shoehorned into the “natural primary caregiver” role, women often find themselves chastised for doing things on their own. Those who believe that single parent families are bringing down the morals of the nation usually also believe that “it’s not natural” is a great line of argument for almost anything, and that the ladies are more suited to preparing a hot dinner for their husbands coming in. Additionally, of course, those quickest to judge single mothers are ordinarily also anti-abortion, which is a beautiful right wing paradox in itself. But as it turns out, keeping the caricature in our head of Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard pushing six discount pushchairs around the council estate as she swigs a cider isn’t exactly contributing to cultural progression. And if you really want to better society, it might be a whole lot more productive to change your own opinions than it is to rail against the so-called “lifestyles” of others.

Single motherhood isn't a "lifestyle choice". Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.