Single mothers have a “desire to procreate independently of men” and are “producing a generation of ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate children”. Getting pregnant is their “natural desire”, though these “uppity and irresponsible women” shouldn’t be blamed – the fault lies with the modern man’s “inability to take control of his woman”. At least, that’s what Boris Johnson wrote in a 1995 Spectator article that was dug up by Labour and brought to the attention of journalists last night.
These comments have barely featured in mainstream news, unlike Boris Johnson’s views on applying jam to a scone. Perhaps the low level of coverage has something to do with the fact that women, as an oppressed majority, find it almost impossible to organise as a class. We are too diverse in opinion and without unanimous agreement on the need for women’s liberation, even if female solidarity is indeed desperately required in this climate of rank misogyny. And because of that, we are too frequently only effective as a lobbying force on straightforward issues where near consensus has been established – equal pay, for instance.
“I blame the men. I blame the male sex for the appalling proliferation of single mothers,” Boris Johnson wrote. Agreed. I don’t think the proliferation is appalling itself, of course, but the male behaviour that is mostly found to be the cause of single motherhood is shameful. What doesn’t seem to be widely understood is that being brought up by a single mum is absolutely fine – or would be if proper support were provided, and if new men didn’t then intrude on the lives of one-parent families with the thoroughly cruel and cynical aim of exploiting their vulnerability.
Throughout my childhood, my mum went without, not ever buying new clothes or generally treating herself. But it was an interesting time, involving a lot of political activism (protesting in the House of Commons against New Labour’s decision to slash lone parent benefit, for example). And it was financially and emotionally just-about-manageable thanks to her resourceful ways. That is, until an abusive boyfriend came along and created violent, traumatic situations. That’s why men are to blame. Not because of their “inability to take control”, but precisely because of that controlling behaviour.
Boris Johnson finds it “generally plausible that if having a baby out of wedlock meant sure-fire destitution on a Victorian scale, young girls might indeed think twice about having a baby”. He also talks of “girls” who have “failed to take their pill”. This portrays a fundamental misunderstanding of single parenthood. Less than 1% of single mothers are teenagers. My mum was 34 when she had me, not a “girl”. She became a single parent because a man with whom she had a nine-year relationship, one day, when I was two years old, revealed that he had never been faithful to her.
I’m sure the Prime Minister is fully aware that his infantilisation of single mothers – mostly adults who’ve gone through the entirely standard process of being cheated by a man they once trusted – is wrong. After all, he has created a few of those situations himself, and I don’t know the details but I assume the women were over the age of consent.
People will excuse Boris Johnson’s comments about single mothers because he wrote the Spectator article in 1995, and they will suggest it’s possible that he has changed his views since then. In the ‘90s, it is true, single mothers were widely scapegoated and blamed for all social problems. Alone and broke, my mum felt suicidal after reading those articles. That Johnson’s comments were common at the time doesn’t make them acceptable, though, does it? It is not OK that our Prime Minister once espoused these views, and what’s more there is no evidence that he now rejects them.
Johnson might like to pretend today that he was never a fan of austerity, as he does done ironically in a new Spectator interview, but the actions of his government show this is nonsense. He resigned from the cabinet because the Brexit deal on the table was not ‘hard’ enough, not because he had any objections to the domestic agenda, which included a tax credit ‘rape clause’. The new Tory manifesto expresses no interest in improving women’s lives either. And that is why the Prime Minister’s comments on single motherhood matter today.