Unsung Heroines: Single Mothers and the American Dream

By Ruth Sidel | Go to book overview

Introduction

The denigration and demonization of single mothers has deep roots in American culture. Mothers without husbands have been looked upon with suspicion and hostility since the time of the earliest settlers. Today’s concerns about the weakening of the traditional family and about related issues such as single motherhood, divorce, sexual permissiveness, teenage pregnancy, and abortion have formed a central theme in American society for generations. Both the early Settlement Laws and the Colonial Poor Laws of seventeenth-century America punished husbandless women and unwed mothers, differentiating between the “deserving” and the “undeserving.” During the early years of the twentieth century, programs to help the poor stated that only “fit and worthy” women would receive help; these generally were white widows.1

The recent period of intensified concern about single motherhood was spurred by the ascendancy of conservative ideology in the United States as marked by the election of Ronald Reagan as president. Rapid social change during the 1970s and 1980s—increasing numbers of single mothers, especially women having children outside marriage; a significant increase in teenage pregnancy and birth; a continuing high divorce rate; and fundamental changes in the roles and status of women—contributed to the anxiety about social issues. Reagan’s infamous labeling of poor women as “welfare queens” was accompanied by significant cutbacks in essential social services, particularly for poor women and chil

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