I was privileged to attend Federal Parliament in 2013 to witness the Australian government’s apology to mothers and their children who were forced to relinquish their children for adoption. https://www.juliagillard.com.au/national-apology-for-forced-adoptions/
Many of these women were single and their pregnancies were considered shameful. Single mothers were denigrated and stigmatised, cast as ‘whores’ and ‘harlots. As Anne Summers has stated, unmarried mothers were ‘the most visible single symbol of the bad girl’ (Damned Whores and God’s Police, p. 51).
It can be argued that this stigmatised attitude towards single mothers has lessened in the 21stC. The feminist movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s had much to do with this, advocating for women’s rights and against draconian laws which limited women from fully participating in society. With the advent of the birth control, and abortion reform laws women were able to take more control over their reproduction. Changes to the Family Law Act in 1975, also allowed women to leave unhappy and abusive marriages. This has had an impact on the number of women raising children on their own.
Emily Wolfinger has analysed this trend and argues that whilst the denigration of single mothers on moral grounds has decreased, they now face being labelled as ‘welfare dependents”, resulting in “punitive and paternalistic policy measures”.
“It was in the 1980s that the focus began to shift from the ‘problem’ of the single mother to the ‘problem’ of welfare dependency whereby single mothers’ reliance on welfare, rather than their marital status, was deemed the social problem. While society has entered an age of liberal sexual attitudes and changing family structures where explicit moral judgments are less tolerated, the denigration of single mothers persists via a construction that sees them as flawed economic citizens.” (p.4)
Neo-liberal economic ideology has been responsible for a number of policy and legal changes which have placed financial burdens on single mothers.
- tougher penalties imposed for compliance failures (including ‘no-payment’ for up eight weeks), and it extended the new rules to many sole parents and people with disabilities, (Howard Government)
- The Rudd government also tightened the conditions under which parents received welfare benefits,
- January of 2013 when the former Gillard Labor government moved recipients of Parenting Payment (Single), whose youngest child had turned eight, onto the lower Newstart payment.
- Northern Territory Intervention
- Cashless Welfare card
Within these policies changes, not only are these impacts on women but there are also racist and class implications.
Whilst Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations (2008) preceded the apology for forced adoptions, racist policies and practices continue to remove aboriginal children from their families.
Aboriginal children are almost 10 times more likely to be placed in out of home care than non-Indigenous children.
Indigenous women are losing their children to child protection because of housing shortages that force them to stay in abusive relationships, new research has found. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-08-29/abused-indigenous-women-losing-kids-care-lack-of-housing/11462026?pfmredir=sm
The Northern Territory Intervention
In 2007, the federal government staged a massive intervention in the Northern Territory on the basis of the report, “Little Children are Sacred” as a result of a government inquiry into child sexual abuse in the Northern Territory.
“The fall-out was a full-scale, (including army), intervention which resulted in the reinforcement of the unwavering, systemic stealing of children from their arms, to who knows where? The Department of Childrens Services have lost the files on some 8,000 children who are thus just “disappeared”.” https://sim345.wordpress.com/2015/04/14/cashless-welfare-to-target-violence-against-women-not-in-my-name-sexist-racist-and-unacceptable/
The intervention in fact has done little to address child sexual abuse or violence against women. http://stoptheintervention.org/facts
The allegations of violence and abuse show no details of who and why such abuse occurs in Indigenous communities – and shows little information about how this compares to white Australia.
Who is abusing young girls in these communities? Is it the same white men who commit violence and abuse in Australian society generally?
“There was, and is, no acknowledgment of who does this to girls and women (men do this to them). There was no acknowledgment of more than 200 years of ongoing genocide in this country. Certainly, not a word about the prostituted as a class nor the acknowledgement of what the underlying structure of capitalism and male entitlement does to girls and women.”
We know that young girls who are impoverished and vulnerable are more likely to be targets of abusive men – “the worst of those committing predatory behavior and violence.”
Interestingly, two years after the Northern Territory Intervention, The Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs’ report Closing the Gap in the Northern Territory revealed that convictions of child sexual abuse involving Aboriginal perpetrators have “barely changed”,
Maria Mies and Silvia Federici have both written about the different treatment of Western women and women from colonized nations and how capitalist patriarchy has used different strategies to oppress and colonize women, depending on the needs of capitalist accumulation.
Cashless Welfare Card
The instigation of a welfare card practice leads to a greater exploitation and vulnerability for women and children.
“Removing control of money from recipients is a dangerous practice. What the outraged or concerned media and general public call ‘paternalism’ is actually far worse. It is a means to ensure an expanding class of people vulnerable to exploitation. That the majority of the victims are women, indigenous and the young is not just an extreme act of ‘paternalism’, it is an extreme commitment to profit from the abuse of the bodies and lives of those most marginalized, by taking away what limited independence we may have.”Eachone
The oppression of women, and single mothers in particular, has been going on since the beginning of patriarchy, almost 5,000 years ago.
Gerda Lerner in her excellent book “The Creation of Patriarchy’ talks about how the “appropriation by men of women’s sexual and reproductivity capacity occurred prior to the formation of private property and class society” (p.8)
Communities where sex roles were previously equal, and perhaps even matrilineal became patriarchal, ruled and dominated by men. The patriarchal family was born. Women’s status and class was mediated through their relationship “sexual ties” with men.
Thus, Lerner states,
“The division of women into “respectable” (that is attached to one man) and “not respectable” (that is not attached to one man or free for all men)…” (p.9) became institutionalised through the patriarchal family and has continued to present time.“
Federici (The Caliban and the Witch) acknowledges that male violence against women has been historically taking place for centuries as a reflection of patriarchy. Violence, at the least, legitimized by the State, if not actively encouraged.
Federici’s thesis is that such violence was bolstered by the persecution of women as witches. It led to:
- “confinement of women in Europe to unpaid domestic labor”
- “legitimated subordination to man in and beyond the family”
- “state control over reproductive capacity” (p.47)
This was about power and control and capital accumulation. Where previously in villages and communities there was a system of sharing resources, such as the Commons, where women used and shared their knowledge and experiences of caring and healing, midwifery and reproduction. The state needed to take control of this knowledge and these skills.
“…the witch-hunts served to deprive women of their medical practices, forced them to submit to the patriarchal control of the nuclear family, and destroyed a holistic concept of nature that until the Renaissance set limits on the exploitation of the female body.” (p. 11)
The state needed to disempower women of their knowledge in order to take control. In particular the state needed to take control of women’s reproductive capacity and knowledge. As capitalism was taking hold, children were seen as products for labor exploitation – economic property which the capitalist state need to control. Thus, women’s sexual behaviour and procreation needed to come under the control of the state.
“We must think of an enclosure of knowledge, of our bodies, and of our relationship to other people and nature.” (p.21)
“As I wrote in Caliban and the Witch, the witch hunt instituted a regime of terror on all women, from which emerged a new model of femininity to which women had to conform to be socially accepted in the developing capitalist society: sexless, obedient, submissive, resigned to subordination to the male world, accepting as natural the confinement to a sphere of activities that in capitalism has been completely devalued.” (p. 32). Federici:Witches, Witch-Hunting and Women
The witch hunts were about controlling and the oppression of women. Women are required to be under control of a male within the nuclear family and hence under the control of the state. And the treatment of single mothers today is indicative of state’s continued control and oppression of women
Our treatment of single Mother’s currently has a historical ideology.
“(there is)… a direct causal connection between the global extension of capitalist relations and the escalation of violence against women, as the punishment against their resistance to the appropriation of their bodies and their labour.” (Mies; xi)