Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Contemporary feminism began some decades ago with what Betty Friedan called the “feminine mystique”-the notion that women had been trapped into thinking of full-time wife-and-mothering as their path to fulfillment. The feminine mystique went on to become the defining and energizing idea of the feminist movement, as outrage over the quantities of female talent being squandered in kitchens and scout dens took hold. In the generations after Friedan, many women would define themselves in opposition to their mothers’ experience of baking cookies and serving tea with a degree from, say, Wellesley.

A Wellesley graduate who famously avoided this ignominious fate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, remarked feelingly on a recent PBS documentary that, due to restrictive definitions of femininity, America had lamentably lost the services of untold numbers of women as doctors and lawyers and judges and teachers and so on. Perhaps only the First Lady could make feminism sound like a selfless desire to serve, but what is more important in her remarks is that she spoke as though every woman had the ability to be a professional, and as though only professional women counted.

At the time of the publication of The Feminine Mystique in 1963, there seemed to be so many Seven Sister graduates up to their elbows in cake mix that the many women who had taken a basic satisfaction in motherhood were overlooked and forgotten-especially women from that class for whom the alternative was being not a doctor or a lawyer or a judge but, say, a machinist. The movement seemed driven by the discontent of overeducated, upper-middle-class women and their angry daughters determined not to repeat their mothers’ mistakes.

Some commentators anticipated that a division would arise between women who wanted motherhood and women who did not, but it turns out that motherhood was not to be left behind in the new feminist model. A division developed instead between the rapidly receding ideal of motherhood as a primary activity and the accelerating insistence on motherhood as one among many “life experiences.”

It seems necessary to bring all this to light now because, while the insistence on motherhood as a life experience seems to be in the ascendancy (guiding all kinds of public choices and official decisions, from work policy to day care to welfare), the rapidly receding ideal of motherhood as a primary task may not have entirely flickered out, particularly among the nonprofessional classes. This still-surviving ideal of motherhood needs to be considered before we can fully understand some of the chronic problems we face at present-especially the problem of single mothers receiving public assistance.

The professional class’s attitude toward these women has routinely been that no young woman would choose motherhood (especially early in life, and especially without a husband) if she had other options. We commonly hear that these “children having children,” or even “babies having babies,” are without hope-prompted to pregnancy by the bleakness and emptiness of their lives. A child at least gives them “someone to love,” something to live for, a way to be needed and appreciated.

This is no doubt what inspired a recent experimental program for young mothers called New Chance, which served 1,408 women in ten states, and which, according to the New York Times , “showered” its participants with education and social services. The program was closely watched by welfare experts since its basic inspiration seemed close to many Clinton Administration initiatives.

An article in the Christian Science Monitor , written at an earlier stage of the program, gave details of the services offered and suggested that it was yielding some modest successes. The young mothers, aged sixteen to twenty-two, came to community centers five days a week, from nine until three. Their children generally received on-site supervision and health care. In the mornings the women studied toward their high school equivalency degrees; in the afternoons they received counseling on careers, family planning, parenting, and child development. Later in their programs, they were given training in job skills, internships related to their career choices, and further education. Each had a personal case worker to provide individual support and direction.

A later article in the Times , however, tucked away in the bottom corner of page sixteen, reported that the program had at last been determined to have failed. The experiment had “no effect in moving [the mothers] from welfare into the job market,” the Times reported. “After eighteen months, those who joined the program were no more likely to be off welfare or in a job than a similar group that received no services,” and about “80 percent of the mothers from both groups were still collecting welfare.” The program did succeed in getting more women in the test group than in the control group to complete their high school equivalency diplomas, but this turned out to be meaningless. Both groups were still reading below eighth-grade level at the end of the eighteen months (which perhaps tells us more than we wanted to know about the value of the high school equivalency degree). And, most importantly, 57 percent of those in the test group were pregnant again after the eighteen months, while 53 percent of those in the control group were.

One reason for the failure of programs like New Chance may be that the women involved do not see motherhood through the eyes of our national elite. They see that having a child may actually be something primarily and immediately desirable, not something to avoid or postpone-not a make-do out of desperation, not an inconvenience that interferes with an education, not something to do while also advancing a career, not one of a number of life experiences, but a primary experience.

We used to see public service advertisements that tried to discourage illegitimacy by portraying the frustration and loneliness of the single mother, but these young women know better. Single motherhood is an established institution in our society by now; these women have numerous friends who have had babies out of wedlock, and they do not quite see the awful, hopeless, dead-end entrapment of public lore. If they did, they perhaps would be more careful, but what they see instead is many young women managing, more or less, and probably enjoying, more or less, the experience of motherhood. This may be the reason we no longer see the kind of public service campaigns that we used to; to those in the know they would look as antiquated as the old VD films that were once shown to GIs.

Of course we have all heard the discouraging statistics connecting single motherhood to poverty, crime, limited education, and unemployment. But these statistics do not reveal a life of total desperation in each individual case. While single motherhood is a bad idea overall, it is dishonest for welfare reform critics to keep up the fiction that it is only embraced out of hopelessness or despair, or that it can only be countered by massive public programs offering greater “opportunity.” In many city neighborhoods one can see briskly attentive single mothers and their offspring, shopping, lunching out, playing in the park, walking home from school, visiting the library. Recently, a number of unmarried women on public assistance (many of them already mothers several times over) managed to obtain fertility treatments on Medicaid. A news article told of the “joy” felt by a single mother when she heard that her teenage son’s girlfriend was pregnant, and a husband and wife pastoral team with a radio ministry had to give a lecture on the inappropriateness of baby showers for single Christian women.

To onlookers consulting the statistics, the situation of single mothers may seem hopeless, even disastrous. But to these women, it is a real life they are living, and not some apology for a life. In fact, compared to real motherhood, the New Chance model of studying, laboring, work shopping, interning, skills training, career counseling, etc., all under the watchful eyes of a social worker, probably looks a little grim. Even “wanting someone to love” is not as desperate or illegitimate a reason for having children as it may at first sound. “I look at my children and I know I gave something to the world,” a welfare mother told the Times . (The situation of the children may be a different story, but that is not what we are asked to consider by those who want us to pity the women’s lives.)

Even so, women in the professional classes, confronted with a young single mother, imagine that the only life worth living is one very much like their own-that to live without the prospects of a major career, to give birth without completing an education, to rear a child without setting up a college fund and providing violin lessons, is to face a void. But this is simply untrue. A great many people manage to enjoy life with much less than all that, and do not feel nearly as sorry for themselves as others do for them.

None of this is to suggest that single motherhood is a good thing; in fact, its escalation is an alarming sign of how far the institutions and civilizational mechanisms of our society have been destroyed by the forces of “liberation” in recent decades. But the ascendant trivialization and denigration of motherhood by the professional classes keeps us from seeing not how “hopeless” these lives are, but, relatively speaking, how gratifying. For many women being a mother can suffice, despite what all the feminist maximizers, actualizers, and promoters of female potential and absolute self-fulfillment may think.

If it is true that illegitimacy is spreading through all levels of the population, perhaps one of the reasons is that state-supported single motherhood has been for some time the one situation in which women can actually be relatively relaxed about putting motherhood first. The idea of a nonworking wife has already become unthinkable for many middle-class men. “Welfare Mothers Have a Big Job To Do Raising Their Children,” ran a defense of welfare opposing the idea that mothers on public assistance should be made to work. Who makes such an apologia for the harried middle-class mom, “juggling,” “balancing,” and “having it all”? Our society should rethink its ideas about motherhood, if it is serious about reducing illegitimacy. Come to think of it, it should rethink its ideas about motherhood, period.

Carol Iannone teaches at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift