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)

News
people

Actress sees off speculation about her appearance in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
Serge Pizzorno of Kasabian and Noel Fielding backstage at the Teenage Cancer Trust concerts
musicKasabian and Noel Fielding attack 'boring' musicians
News
videoWatch Lynda Bellingham's tragic final Loose Women appearance
Arts and Entertainment
The last great picture - Winner 'Black and White' and overall 'Wildlife Photographer of the Year'
art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
High notes, flat performance: Jake Bugg
music

Review: Despite an uphill climb to see Jake Bugg in action, his performance is notably flat

News
The Putin automaton will go on sale next month in Germany
videoMusical Putin toy showing him annexing Crimea could sell for millions
News
news

Powerful images of strays taken moments before being put down

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 pose for Children in Need 2001
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Right Here' singer Jess Glynne is nominated for Best Newcomer at the MOBO Awards 2014
musicExclusive: Jess Glynne hits out at 'ridiculous' criticism of white artists nominated for Mobo Awards
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voices

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Brand has written a book of political analysis called Revolution
books

Review: Witty banalities aside, the comedian has an authentic voice

Arts and Entertainment
Separated at birth? Frank Sivero (left) claims The Simpsons based Mafia character Louie on his Goodfellas character
arts + entsFrank Sivero sues Simpsons studio over allegedly basing mobster character on Frank Carbone
News
Carl Bernstein (left) and Bob Woodward (right) with former 'Washington Post' executive editor Ben Bradlee
people

The Washington Post editor helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bring down President Nixon

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary Teachers-Northwich area

£85 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Primary Teachers- Northwich Ar...

Year 2 Teacher

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: An extract from the latest...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

HLTA - Higher Level Teaching Assistant

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London