1990s >> 1994 >> no-1076-april-1994

Single Mothers and Absent Fathers

Women trying to solve the problem of male dominance by fighting men, and men who try to hang on to their historical dominant role are playing into the hands of the capitalist class, argues Nicky Snell

One of the government’s recent scapegoats has been the single parent. An obvious target as single parents are mostly women and mostly poor. Fortunately for us and unfortunately for them, they have hung themselves with their own rope.

The stigmatized “unmarried mother” was in the early part of this century frequently given a life-sentence in a psychiatric institution. Her crime: partaking willingly or unwillingly in sexual intercourse outside of another repressive institution – marriage; and having the fortune or misfortune to conceive. She was labelled immoral, and even if not incarcerated in a psychiatric prison, would be sentenced to a life of shame. Such moral stigma hardly touched the male participant in the condemned sexual act.

To me, such an attitude seems incomprehensible. The human procreative process, including sexual pleasure and the ensuing arrival of a new and tiny human life, grown within the woman’s body, has always seemed something worthy of celebration.

This is not to detract from the very real, sometimes devastating effects that such an arrival can have upon a woman’s life. In those days, a pregnant woman, married or unmarried, was threatened with loss of life. Death as a result of childbirth was common. And as any committed parent knows, keeping a baby alive, let alone comfortable and content, involves an enormous amount of work. Even today, this work is not recognized for what it is. Parents caring for little children do not even have the comforts allocated to wage-slaves: a protected wage, tea breaks, lunch hours and regular time off duty though parents can gain something mostly denied to other wage-slaves. a deep satisfaction in the work.

In short, heterosexual sex makes babies, and women and men have a sex drive. Even now, no form of contraception, not even a sterilization operation, can be 100 percent relied upon. Human babies, being dependent for many years, require a lot of attention to keep them alive, happy and healthy, and providing the kind of environment where this is possible is not an easy task — certainly not within our present economic system. The traditional system of survival for babies, children and their carers is patriarchal monogamous marriage. The man takes the initiative in finding a wife. The woman must wait to be asked. The man then has free access to her body for the purposes of sexual satisfaction (“conjugal rights”). He also has a responsibility to provide and care for the woman and their resulting children. It is understood that such human qualities as love, compassion and altruism are required to make this palatable.

Up until the late sixties and seventies, anybody transgressing these guidelines was shamed and castigated, in particular the woman who enjoyed sexual pleasure outside marriage. The man who failed to provide for this family was treated with contempt.

The moralizing and shame served the capitalists well. It kept the majority of women and children within the framework of “The Family”, largely dependent on the men who derived their income by slaving for the capitalist hierarchy. A man who feels duty-bound to feed his family in these circumstances is a man fearful of losing his job. Such a man is manipulable by capitalism.

The damaging effects of patriarchal monogamy led to a number of challenges.

The first concerned sexual repression. Sexuality is a very powerful drive within both men and women that seeks some form of release. For young adults it is new, strong and difficult to manage. The old way of dealing with it was to discuss it as little as possible and to keep young women and men apart. Homosexual activity was stamped on where possible. There were then accepted means for men and women to meet and arrive at the desired state of matrimony, within which sexuality could be expressed. Unfortunately the levels of repression and ignorance set up led to many people leading a life of sexual misery. Wilhelm Reich argued that there is a connection between sexual repression and fascism.

The second concerned the effect upon society of the expectation that a man should “control” his wife. This expectation sabotages potentially good relations between the sexes, leaving a man to a greater or lesser extent on guard and limiting a woman’s freedom of expression.

For example, a man whose wife spends “over” long talking to another man in a pub may be warned by his mates to “look out”. He is seen to be not in control of his wife and pressured into unnecessary hostilities both with his wife and the man in question. Or a woman, who has some genuine grievance which needs discussing with her partner at an adult level, may be dismissed as “nagging”. The man feels that to take her seriously is somehow to relinquish his masterful role.

The main challenge here has come from the women’s liberation movement.

But we are still left with capitalism. Its present-day representatives in Britain, the Conservative Party, have been trying to re-instate patriarchal monogamy values by condemning single parents and forcing fathers back into the position of financially supporting families they have left behind. Whose purpose does this serve?

Firstly, many of the recent moves made by the government have to do with power and control. From the better-off to the worst-off — from doctors and university lecturers and teachers to schoolchildren and the unemployed — all are under far stricter surveillance than before. And control has to do with property. We are being reminded that we are not free. We are governed by the state which is an instrument of capitalism.

Secondly, the principle of “divide and conquer” is being brought to bear. Under pressure the working class tends to divide against itself. The government is helping this by encouraging scapegoating of particular sections of the working class single parents, absent fathers, etc.

Though many of us have been amused at the way the government’s policies have backfired recently, these have nonetheless been having their effect. In a article entitled “Fathers who won’t Pay”, Yasmin Alibhai Brown writes in the February issue of Everywoman:

    “In a bar at the BBC Television Centre. I recently heard three slightly tipsy chaps ranting on about how men were now killing themselves because the state was making such massive and unjust demands on them to support the children of previous relationships. Words like ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’ were flying around the crowded room.”

Men are back to hating women and feminists resent the relative status of “middle- class” men. Once again the focus is away from the real source of the problem — a system in which the profits of the few come before the needs of the many, feminists and “middle-class” men included.

I can remember thinking, a few years back, that the movement of women and children onto the registers of the Social Security was a movement towards society taking collective responsibility for its children. It may have been, but it was also a movement towards the relative impoverishment of women and children.

Now the men are to be likewise impoverished with the arrival of the Child Support Agency, whose prime purpose is to save the state the money it now pays to women on Income Support by taking it from the fathers, which doesn’t improve the living standard of the women by one iota. It is also a move to place the responsibility of providing for children back onto the shoulders of their biological fathers, who of course have to derive their income by slaving for the capitalist hierarchy.

For those women in the exhausting business of undertaking full-time paid work as well as raising children alone, there may be some improvement in living standards, but whether it is worth the resentment that accompany the extra money is a matter of some doubt. Where men are forced to part with their earnings to support women and children, there is almost a reversal of the old system: a man suffering the indignity of having his earnings deducted at source will feel himself to be the woman’s property. Thus the battle of the sexes continues, with a twist to its tail.

The “sex war” is taking place now and represents a near 50/50 split in the world’s population. It is not a simple affair, but one which has to be faced if we wish to achieve the free and truly democratic society we wish for.

It is not something that was started by feminists, neither is it something that will end either by their activities alone or by simply quieting them down. It started a very long time ago. No one knows exactly how or why it became such a universal practice for women to be treated as the property of men, but there appears to be a connection between this phenomenon and the use of slaves, the domestication of farm animals and the assumption of property rights over land.

Women, forced or educated into a subordinate role, cannot act in the world in an assertive and free way, and are unable to take up an active political stance alongside men. Subordinates often become manipulative and dishonest: the loyalty of a subordinate is usually tempered by resentment and is always fragile compared to the love and solidarity given to an equal friend or partner. Likewise, women trying to solve the problem of male dominance, by fighting men as the enemy, help to keep us divided, as do men who try to hang on to their historical dominant role.

We all, men and women alike, can end the division of the sexes through listening and learning and through changes in consciousness and behaviour in order to come together and fight the real enemy — the system geared to making financial profit for the few at the expense of the rest of us.

A humanity divided against itself cannot organize to create Socialism. A humanity linked by solidarity, friendship and respect can do just that.

Nicky Snell

Leave a Reply