Married to the state : mothering on welfare : survival strategies of single mothers in a UK public housing estate

Emptage, Tricia Mary

Sociology; Human services
September 1994

Thesis or dissertation

© 1994 Tricia Mary Emptage. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

This thesis provides an ethnographic account of the lives of single mothers subsisting on Department of Social Security (DSS) benefits in a large public housing estate where unemployment rates are very high and traditional nuclear families are the exception rather than the rule. The aims and objectives of the thesis are to explain and interpret the survival strategies of working-class women whose lives are characterised by physical and emotional hardships, multiple deprivation and violence. Two issues in particular are addressed. The first is the construction of gender role norms and to significance in the way women interpret their own actions and those of others and the second is the importance of resources derived from informal female social networks for the survival of individual women.The thesis relies largely on data gathered during two and a half years of participant observation within the estate, combining interviews with a total of 96 single mothers and cases studies in the form of life histories of eight women. These methods are described in chapter 1.Chapter 2 focuses on the impact of economic change, patterns of male and female employment and their impact on family structures, gender roles and gender identity. It begins with a discussion of women and social change, firstly from an historical perspective and then in the light of recent changes in the western economy and women's changing position relative to men. It argues that the extent to which women are able to bring about social and economic change has been underestimated. To portray women universally as the victims of oppression by men, individually or collectively, denies the role of women as agents of social change in their own right. The influence of women in the 'domestic sphere' can have widespread and far-reaching consequences for society as a whole. The chapter argues that for many women, single-motherhood is a strategy for survival, just as marriage itself can be a strategy for survival. Where marriage offers the best or only option for women and their children, they will tolerate inequality, exploitation and even abuse in return for financial support from men. Where such material support is not available or is not the best option, women reject marriage in favour of single parenthood. They have evaluated the potential advantages and disadvantages -a cost-benefit analysis often based on real experience - and opted to remain single.Chapter 3 offers a brief discussion of some American case material. There are many similarities between the responses of individuals and families to economic disadvantage and marginalisation in the black ghettos of the USA and those in the Green Fields estate. The American studies demonstrate the fragility of the nuclear family in areas of widespread poverty.Chapter 4 describes the setting of the study.Chapter 5 presents case studies in the form of life-histories of eight single mothers in Green Fields. The cases illustrate the capacity of the majority of women to manipulate and manage their lives with varying degrees of success.Chapter 6 examines the incidence and experience of male violence within sexual relationships in Green Fields. From the accounts of the women's experiences we discover why they tolerate violence in relationships and why, if at all, they eventually leave the relationships. It argues that within the cultural framework of the Green Fields setting violence in sexual relationships is, to a greater or lesser extent, accepted as normal by both men and women. Where men are denied legitimate means to express their masculinity through work and wages, the need to express their masculinity manifests itself in alternative and less conventional forms of behaviour. Their economic , powerlessness' in the broader society is compensated for by displays of conspicuous and exaggerated 'machismo', often in the form of aggressionChapter 7 discusses women and crime in the light of social change. It explores issues concerning the unequal propensity for men to engage in crime compared to women, and questions whether theories used to explain and predict male criminality actually stand up to scrutiny if they are applied to women. The chapter goes on to argue that the linkage between the single-motherhood and rising crime rates since 1955 is at best inconclusive and ignores other social changes which have occured during the same period.Chapter 8, investigates patterns of illicit activities within Green Fields, and focuses on the implications of such activities in terms of gender, resources and individual survival. The chapter shows that the women of the estate, if they break the law, do so in order to provide adequately for their children, and even then their illicit activities are on a very small scale. In Green Fields women's primary identity is tied up with the role of 'motherhood'. Women define, justify and legitimise their own actions and those of other women in terms of their perceived qualities as mothers, and utilise whatever opportunities, illicit or otherwise, that are available in order to provide for their children. The role of traditional working class motherhood, in which women have always had primary responsibility for child care, has been extended to include making financial provision for their children in the absence of support from fathers. It is from this that they derive their self-esteem and self-respect.Chapter 9, in conclusion, explains the implications of the previous chapters, and in particular the social networks, in terms of individual survival and identity. Despite their impoverished circumstances, the majority of women are able to maintain traditional bonds of parenthood, female friendship networks and their social identity. The minority who are not able to do so are disabled not by men, but by other women who exclude them from the female social networks from which important material and other support is derived.The chapter also discusses how the men of Green Fields have become peripheral to domestic and family life, and that this has led to a crisis of identity for men. The traditional construction of working-class gender roles in which men provided for and dominated their partners and children has changed to one in which poor women, through the welfare system, are financially better placed than men and often better off without them. Nonetheless, men can and do bring resources (through crime) into the estate and these resources, directly and indirectly, benefit some women and children.

Department of Sociology, The University of Hull
Wallman, Sandra
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