LETTERS to the Editor

Harvard International Review, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

LETTERS to the Editor


The Politics of Single Motherhood

In "Demand Driven Leadership" (Harvard International Review, Fall 1999) Lionel Tiger argues that various developments in contemporary Western society make single motherhood a reasonable choice for women; that single mothers are becoming so numerous that politicians, especially female ones, will have to respond to their political needs; and that these female politicians may well be more peace-oriented than the men they replace. There are a great many leaps of faith encoded in this argument, which is expressed in the language of genetic determinism but, as is so often the case, does not use biology to explain anything that cannot be explained more simply and concretely in many other ways.

It is true that single mothers have increased in numbers over the past 30 years--not just in the United States, but in many parts of the world--but hardly as much as Tiger says. That one-third of babies are born out of wedlock does not translate to "the actions of a third of the population"--not even to the actions of one-third of the female population of childbearing age who are mothers, since many women have more than one child out of wedlock. Furthermore, defining "single mothers" as all women who give birth outside of marriage surely overstates the number of women who are truly on their own from the time of the child's birth by counting as "single mothers" women in solid, non-marital relationships with men or women, women who marry or enter a lasting relationship after the birth of a child, young girls who give up their babies for adoption, and so on. For example, in California a few years ago, it was discovered that women with a different last name from the one they gave their baby on the birth certific ate were counted as single mothers!

Socioeconomic and Marital Status

Does an increase in single motherhood mean that women are consciously and rationally choosing it, as Tiger argues? Among women with professional or managerial jobs, single motherhood is a rare choice--as of 1993 only 8.3 percent were having kids out of wedlock. Since these educated women have the most options, the fact that most eschew having babies while unmarried tells us something about what women with choices do in fact prefer. Mostly, women who have babies alone come from the socially disadvantaged parts of society: they are young, poor, without great life prospects, and often without real knowledge of contraception or, in many states, ready access to abortion. Many come from troubled families or have been sexually or physically abused. Most of these pregnancies are unplanned. Many, too, give birth with the prospect, or hope, or delusion, of support from boyfriends who are themselves typically without much chance of upward mobility. One need not think women are acting from "stupidity" or "inadvertence" to challenge Tiger's simplistic view of single motherhood as a bright new plan on the part of women, enabled by government benefits to avoid marriage and men. As for men, Tiger argues that legal abortion freed them from shotgun marriages--but the US states with the highest rates of out-of-wedlock childbirth (Mississippi, for instance) are the states with the least access to abortion. Something more complicated is going on, having more to do, I suspect, with large numbers of young men too downwardly mobile to marry than with large numbers of women rejecting marriage on principle.

Does the mere fact that significant numbers of single mothers exist make them a powerful voting bloc whose interests must be attended to by US politicians? I see no evidence of that. Where is paid maternity leave? Affordable daycare? Decent public housing? Afterschool programs? National health insurance? Despite the massive presence of mothers in the workforce, crucial aspects of daily life- professional career paths, the school day, pediatricians' hours, repair services- are still organized around the assumption that the mother is at home. …

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