Single mothers are for many one of the last acceptable scapegoats for society’s ills. They are blamed for everything from hogging council flats to creating “yob culture”, and frequently portrayed as a morally degenerate and selfish group that we would all be better off without.
Sinners, Scroungers, Saints: Lone Mothers Past And Present is an exhibition at the Women’s Library in east London that comes as a welcome antidote to the stereotypes.
The show is organised by the charity One Parent Families to help dispel the negative assumptions that still surround single mothers.
It features material culled from the charity’s archives which show how society’s attitudes to lone mothers have changed over the years – or not, as the case may be.
Posters, banners, books, magazines and photographs tell the stories of the generations of women who have become lone parents. They highlight the many reasons why women end up raising children alone – including divorce, widowhood, asylum or exile.
The exhibition also includes testimony from lone parents themselves. As you enter you see five portraits filling an entire wall together with recorded interviews from the sitters.
I felt somewhat let down by these interviews. They came across as defensive justifications of the women’s lives that focused on how they became lone parents rather than on discussing what it is to be a lone parent.
A second attempt at testimony later in the exhibition is more successful. A series of single parents are given a small glass cabinet to tell their stories in their own words and images – and there is not one shred of defensiveness.
The exhibition does an excellent job of surveying historical themes – but it occasionally stumbles when it comes to today, where a lot of issues are either skimmed over or left unchallenged.
One exhibit involves the cover from a publication by Fathers4Justice, with a tag talking about the increasing focus on fathers’ rights. But there is no exploration of how sexism creates differing attitudes towards lone mothers and lone fathers. My own childhood was split into six month shifts between parents.
I saw my father treated like a saint while my mother was branded a failure.
Later we see a figurine of the Vicky Pollard character from Little Britain. But there is little discussion about sex education or teenage pregnancy, despite this country’s shameful record on both issues and the obvious link to the exhibition’s main subject.
A timeline running along the final wall includes a series of noticeboards filled with handwritten thoughts on the family from children who have visited the exhibition.
This to me was one of the most interesting exhibits. The children’s competing and at times boastful tributes to their home lives reminded me of how much we are judged by the ideal of “happy families”.
Despite its shortcomings this exhibition is the most thoughtful exploration of lone parenthood that I have seen – and is well worth an hour of your time.
Sinners, Scroungers, Saints is at the Women’s Library, Old Castle Street, London E1, until 29 March. Go to » www.londonmet.ac.uk/thewomenslibrary for more information.