Single mothers photo exhibition: Sinners, Scroungers, Saints: lone mothers, past and present

Sinners, Scroungers, Saints: lone mothers, past and present
The Women’s Library
London Metropolitan University
E1 7NT 

Until 29 March

Star rating: 4/5

From spurned women to Vicky Pollard, the stereotypes of lone mothers over the past century have tended to be more about sinners and scroungers rather than saints – the third word in the exhibition’s title.

The Women’s Library deserves credit for resisting the urge to suggest they are instead all saints. Instead we have a well-delivered range of stories, but the exhibition doesn’t quite succeed in puncturing the modern-day view of single women scrounging off the welfare state.

The big draw is the stories told across two walls of the gallery about family life. One wall is dominated by five portraits of single mothers with their histories.

All the stories are moving, but the tale of a woman who had to raise four children after being widowed in the 1940s pulls at the heartstrings. Her stories about the support and kindliness of strangers encapsulate much of the exhibition’s sentiment: a tough situation can be made bearable with the right support.

The opposite wall allows visitors to leave notes about their family life. Visitor interaction like this can be banal, but the comments on display here are thought-provoking, including one saying: “I left my husband six weeks ago and am now a lone mother to a three-year-old. Coping is nearly impossible and it does help to see that others have managed and have told their stories so well.”

However, the factual displays that accompany the stories fail to explain current stereotypes about single parents. Is it still the pram-pushing, benefits scourge of the 1980s, or has immigration shifted the view of the problem to newcomers?

While this is a good overview of 20th century single parent life, it misses the mark on providing modern-day relevance.

This article appeared in the 24 January issue under the headline “Lifestyle review When the saints go marching in”

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