Return of the bogywoman: The single mother, stigmatised and penalised for centuries until the Sixties, is back in the firing line. Mary Braid reports

WHEN the insurance man or the milkman called, the street was alive with twitching curtains. Today, Susan Richardson, 52, from Sheffield, laughs at the memory, but in 1968 her reputation as the estate's bogywoman, following the illegitimate birth of her daughter, hurt. 'When I moved, word went round like wildfire,' she says. 'I was the only single mother. The neighbours seemed to think that any man who arrived on the doorstep would be invited to bed. I had had very few boyfriends but they saw me as a loose woman.'

Some sections of London society may have been swinging their way through the Sixties; not so Sheffield's lower middle classes. In 1968, family-planning clinics prescribed the contraceptive pill only to married women. A wedding-dress receipt was often asked for as proof of marital status.

'The stigma with being an unmarried mother was unbelievable,' Ms Richardson says. 'My mother was so aghast at what the neighbours would think that she wanted me to have an abortion or an adoption. But I kept my daughter. It has been hard but I have never regretted it. I get furious by the scandalous things politicians say today about single mums.'

The stigma which endured until the Sixties showed up again at last week's Conservative party conference, where the single mother was demonised by a stream of ministers. She was blamed for everything from soaring juvenile crime and housing shortages to the breakdown of society.

Ministers, it emerged, are considering capping welfare and housing benefits to single mothers, whom they portrayed as feckless young parasites who get pregnant deliberately to jump housing queues and whose aim thereafter is to breed with abandon - and a multitude of partners - on income support. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, insisted that the demise of the two-parent family was responsible for the rise in crime.

The vilification of the single mother is nothing new. For most of the 20th century she - not her male partner - has been widely regarded as a financial burden and a fundamental threat to the social fabric. Until the early Eighties, only the strength of public distaste varied.

At the turn of the century, 'fallen women' - there has never been much talk of 'single fathers' or 'fallen men' - were social outcasts. They and their children were condemned to the workhouse to live in separate dormitories.

Sometimes infants were sent to nurseries in the country where their mothers were allowed to visit them only every three months. The single mother received no financial support other than subsistence for her toil.

In 1918, the death rate for children born outside marriage was twice that for other children. Forced separation meant an end to breastfeeding. Food and care in the workhouse were woefully inadequate. Small wonder that single mothers sometimes resorted to infanticide.

While some saw the high mortality rate as a sign of divine displeasure, concern about single mothers and their offspring grew, but the idea that 'degenerate' mothers had to be punished persisted.

As late as 1971, three elderly women were discovered to have been incarcerated for more than 50 years in mental hospitals for no other reason than their having given birth while unmarried.

The coming of the Welfare State eased some of the financial pressure on single parents, but it took another 20 years for moral attitudes to show signs of softening. By 1971, the responsibility for single mothers and their children was shifting to the state, and women like Susan Richardson no longer had to rely on charity and church for financial support and housing.

The number of single-parent families has risen dramatically since the Conservatives returned to office in 1979. In 1981 there were 91,000 births outside marriage (12.5 per cent of live births); in 1991 there were 236,000 (30 per cent). Britain now has the highest proportion of one-parent families in Europe - almost one in five; 1.3 million single parents are now living with 2.1 million children.

Disagreement about the damage this trend is doing to British society has kicked the issue into the political sphere for the first time. The pounds 6bn annual welfare bill for one-parent families (compared with pounds 2.4bn 10 years ago) lurks behind the public outcry.

The British backlash against single parents has been inflamed by social trends in the United States. Since the mid-Eighties, controversial American political scientists such as Professor Charles Murray have been scaring the wits out of the Tory right by arguing that the US's 'social tragedy' - its crime-ridden urban underclass - will soon be repeated in Britain.

Professor Murray makes a clear connection between the rise in illegitimacy and the rise in crime. By forsaking 'traditional family values', Britain's single mother is wreaking havoc on society.

The benefit cuts scheme introduced by the state of New Jersey, currently being assessed by British ministers, would be far too tame a solution for Professor Murray. To him, cutting social-security payments to single parents after their first child and providing employment training instead to 'encourage' them off 'welfare dependency' is mere tinkering with the works.

Professor Murray argues that the decline of the two-parent family and the absence of fathers is the crux in rising crime. Politicians must reaffirm their commitment to the traditional family, he says. What he wants is government spending on single-parent families to be switched to adoption services and orphanages: in effect, a return to 19th- century reliance on charity.

With the Treasury seeking public-expenditure cuts, the campaign against single parenthood in Britain has gathered pace since July, when John Redwood, Secretary of State for Wales, visited the St Mellons housing estate in Cardiff and suggested single mothers' benefit be withheld until the fathers were forced home. Local police later pointed out that there were 240 exclusion orders against violent husbands by families on the estate.

Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, followed up with the suggestion that more hostels be set up for single mothers instead of allocating council housing. The right's preoccupation with the issue was evident a few days later when Dr David Green, of the right-wing Tory think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, argued that this 'would mean the mother could not have a string of boyfriends and would be given guidance on how to bring up a child'.

However, the evidence of a link between single-parent families and crime in Britain is inconclusive, according to David Utting, research fellow with the Family Policy Studies Centre. A Home Office report in 1985 concluded that there was 'no difference in the prevalence of deliquency' between lone- and two-parent children. Other studies, which have found a link, suggest that the children of lone parents are 15 per cent more likely to be involved in crime. Even then, these are petty offences.

Other facts contradict the portrayal of the single mother as a never-married, feckless, scrounging teenager. In fact 33 per cent are divorced, 18 per cent separated, and 6 per cent are widows. Nearly one-third are unmarried, but the vast majority cohabited with the father and have registered his name on the birth certificate. Fewer than 10 per cent are teenagers and their number has been dropping.

In addition, most single mothers have just one child. 'Women are not breeding like rabbits on the state,' said Sue Slipman, director of the National council for One Parent Families. She believes the advance in women's and children's rights in the 20th century - most markedly the liberal divorce laws introduced in 1969 - explain the trend towards single parenting.

A fairer deal for women and children has brought a crisis in male-female relations. It has thrown men into confusion about their role in life, particularly when so many are unemployed - 'If he is not bringing home the bacon and not giving anything emotionally in intimacy or parenting, then what is the reason for him to be there?'

To Ms Slipman, poverty is still the main threat to the well-being of single-parent families. In 1992, 50 per cent of lone parents lived on less than pounds 100 a week.

Kim Bailey, 22, a single mother who lives on a south London estate with her son, aged six, says lack of childcare facilities prevents her realising her dream of independence. She has three female friends in similar circumstances. All are trying to further their education. Without childcare their attempts are sporadic or part- time.

Sue Slipman says the Government must continue to concentrate funds there. 'Despite what some would like, the clock cannot be turned back,' she said.

Leading article, page 24

(Photograph omitted)

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