Unsung Heroines: Single Mothers and the American Dream
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
Reviewed by Diana Dominguez
No doubt, most Americans (if not the rest of the world) have been exposed to the prevailing stereotype of single mothers: poor, young, uneducated, irresponsible, promiscuous; blamed equally for the drain on social services and the breakdown of the family. Ruth Sidel's 2006 book, Unsung Heroines: Single Mothers and the American Dream, is an important attempt to dispel that pervasive image by presenting personal stories of single mothers who defy that stereotype. Although there are aspects of Sidel's study open to attack by critics—not without reason, as I discuss below—for the most part, Sidel has presented a critical and thought-provoking book that would be a useful resource in a sociology or gender studies course to generate much-needed discussion and debate about the issues she raises.
Sidel, a professor of Sociology at Hunter College, has a history with the subject of poverty and the lack of effective social services among women and children in the US. She has written three previous books on the issue that have all looked at how welfare reform and social services cutbacks during the 1980s and 1990s have increased poverty among those who needed the services most, women and children: Women and Children Last: The Plight of Poor Women in Affluent America (1986); On Her Own: Growing Up in the Shadow of the American Dream (1990); and Keeping Women and Children Last: America's War on the Poor (1998). All three volumes looked at the larger picture affecting lower income families—both two-parent and single-parent. In this book, Sidel focuses the lens more narrowly: specifically on single mothers and allows the women to tell their own stories. Sidel explains her reasoning for this approach in her introduction: "Through narrative we come to know one another, to understand the principles by which we and others live" . She goes on to say about her subjects: "Single mothers are entitled to define themselves, to present themselves as they choose rather than being seen and put forward as a category—and a generally denigrated one at that" . It is this aspect of the book that makes it both thought-provoking and engaging; readers are drawn into these women's lives, and these single mothers move beyond statistics and stereotypes to become individuals.
One immediate eye-opening element of the book comes in the way Sidel chooses to define single motherhood. The pervasive stereotype, reiterated by politicians and media pundits, is that of the never married young woman, often teenaged and a member of a minority (most usually African American or Hispanic), who is promiscuous and frivolous, and who "uses" her pregnancy to take advantage of the welfare and social services. The reality, however, is "that women become single mothers in a variety of ways: through separation from their husbands, through divorce, through widowhood, and through having children outside of marriage" . If nothing else, Sidel's book makes painfully aware just how one-dimensional, and erroneous, that pervasive stereotype is. Readers will find themselves, as I did, thinking about how many women they personally know who fall into one or more of those categories, and will most likely realize just how many friends and acquaintances they have who don't fit the stereotype.
In her introduction, Sidel presents sobering statistics about the numbers of families headed by single mothers in the US and the accompanying data about educational and economical disadvantages these families encounter. Ironically, the statistics seem to support the criticism leveled by politicians and media against single-mother households: children reared in such households are more likely to be less successful educationally, economically, and socially, are more likely to turn to inappropriate activities (crime, drugs, sex), and, therefore, simply perpetuate the cycle of poverty. However, as Sidel shows, it is the belief in these statistics and situations that seem to dictate social policy—an increasing movement since the 1980s, from both Republicans and Democrats, to cut welfare and social service programs that could help those most in need of the aid in order to break the cycle of poverty and disadvantage. Sidel writes:
Sidel's aim in writing this book is clear:
To accomplish her goal, between July 2001 and June 2004, Sidel interviewed fifty women who have been single mothers at some time in their lives from the New York metropolitan area. The interview subjects all became single mothers unintentionally, through various reasons (divorce, abandonment, widowhood, and unintended pregnancy without marriage), but varied in age and ethnic, racial, and class backgrounds. She purposely excluded single mothers who planned to give birth or adopt children without a partner because their experiences would be very different from those mothers who were thrust into single parenthood through some kind of disruption (often severe and abrupt) in their lives.
The aim and scope of the book is both its greatest strength and the aspect most open to criticism. Sidel herself answers one of the points of possible criticism: why examine such a wide range of women? Although widows would obviously have significantly different experiences than women who divorced or who were otherwise abandoned (whether they instigated the separations or their husbands did), and these women would have significant differences than unmarried women who became pregnant, Sidel explains that because all these women experienced some kind of traumatic loss or disturbance, they "have more shared experiences than experiences that separate or differentiate them" . Much of Sidel's aim of de-stigmatizing single motherhood is to show just how diverse and complex single mothers are.
The greater criticism lies in the selection and number of the interview subjects included in the book. Sidel levels the following complaint against those pundits, politicians, and media who perpetuate the denigrating stereotype of single mothers:
Ironically, it could be said that Sidel is doing the same thing with her study in the opposite direction: using these fifty women and their experiences to serve as representative and typical of all single mothers. In addition, because the fifty women interviewed were not randomly selected, but found through referrals and word of mouth to find women, as Sidel states, "who fit the criteria of the study" , i.e. who specifically did not bear any relation to the common stereotype, there is a clear bias present. The first major question that arises is the geographic makeup: can a pool of interview subjects from the New York City area be truly representative of the whole group? Does the social diversity of and the resources available in such an area translate to a Bible Belt town in Kansas or a mountain town in Appalachia or a western town in Wyoming or a border town in Texas? While New York City and its metropolitan surroundings may include a greater ethnic, racial, and class diversity that provides a wider diversity of subjects for interview, does it contain the social and moral philosophies and ideologies of other parts of the country that would change the level of visibility, types of opportunities, and diversity of services that single mothers encounter?
To Sidel's credit, she does take pains in several places to state that the group she interviewed does not constitute the norm; however, the tone of much of the book can leave readers with the impression that these women are, in fact, the reality of all single motherhood. Sidel also does qualify her limited pool of subjects often by providing references to other studies that support her claims that most single mothers are more like her subjects than the negative examples often perpetuated by critics of single motherhood. She also makes reference to studies that specifically examine those single mothers who do fall into the stereotype category, presenting, therefore, some balance to her overwhelmingly positive picture. In addition, even though I do have reservations about the limited scope of her interview subjects, I was impressed at the ethnic, racial, class, and age diversity of the group. Even more notable was the number of times I found myself seeing my own single mother friends and acquaintances in the stories presented by Sidel. In fact, this may be the most outstanding element of the book; even though I do not subscribe to the stereotype—I know too many single mothers who simply don't fall into it—Sidel's book made me realize how many more women I know that are single mothers (at last count, 25), and, as Sidel says about her own interview subjects, "none of these women frivolously became a single mother" . In this respect, Sidel's book is important and necessary, as it will most likely lead other readers to examine their own views about single motherhood and wonder about how their own single mother friends and acquaintances fare in the complex web of economic and social systems of their communities.
The book is divided into an introduction and eight chapters. The introduction provides a good overview of general statistics relating to issues affecting single-parent households, but that also have an effect on all families. Sidel also provides a thorough explanation of her subjects, aim, and scope. Chapters 1 and 8 provide information about the larger picture concerning single-parent households, social policies that affect lower income families, especially single mother-led families and children under eighteen, and, in her last chapter, alternative policies that could help the strength and well-being of all families, not just single mother/parent households. Chapters 2-7 each highlight different aspects of single motherhood through the personal narratives of the women interviewed from the book. The topics range from the differing situations that lead to women becoming single mothers to the different ways in which the women cope with their status change. Chapter 7 looks specifically at the roles men play in contributing toward single motherhood and Sidel provides some sobering statistics about how men at many levels of society, but especially in the more impoverished classes (primarily racial and ethnic minorities), face obstacles and ideologies that lead to "opposite views both of romantic relationships and of parenting" .
In each of the chapters in which she presents subject narratives, she follows each of the women's stories with an explanatory summary highlighting the key points of the woman's experience and how those points tie in to Sidel's overall chapter focus. While these summaries do help to highlight the chapter's theme, and help to relate each subject's story to the others in the chapter, they can be a bit irritating, as they are written in a tone that feels as if she is trying too hard to make readers see just how unwarranted the common stereotype of single motherhood is. After a while, Sidel's summaries struck me as intrusive because I felt that she was telling me what I should think about these women rather than letting me connect with the women's stories on my own; this only adds to what will, no doubt, be seen as the bias clearly present in the study based on the selection of the interview subjects.
However, in spite of its drawbacks, Sidel's book is a valuable and necessary study. She provides a substantial bibliography that includes viewpoints from different sides of the debate that will serve as references to the larger social issue of single motherhood. It is a book that will prompt debate, much of it heated, about many issues: the nature of the family, social and economic policies, media perpetuation of certain images, the unbalanced gender perception of single parenthood, as well as the very nature of sociological research and how statistics and studies can be manipulated to support the outcomes one desires. I would recommend the book for a sociology, gender, or women's studies course in order to generate such debate. However, I would also recommend the book to anyone who harbors a strict, one-dimensional view of single mothers; I would venture to guarantee that everyone who reads it will realize they know at least one—and, most likely, a few more than one—single mother who not only doesn't fit the stereotype but spectacularly defies it.