Stigmatizing Single Parents

64 Pages Posted: 8 Nov 2015

See all articles by Nancy E. Dowd

Nancy E. Dowd

University of Florida Levin College of Law

Date Written: 1995


The law embodies pictures of family that focus singularly on the patriarchal marital nuclear family. The value law places on the nuclear family is premised on its perceived essential role in the socialization of citizens as well as its presumed inherent worth as a form of intimate association. We use these pictures and consequent definitions of family to distribute resources, including financial support, fringe benefits, tax breaks, and housing. We use them to decide who is entitled to create families by reproductive technology or adoption and who is entitled to limit or reject family by access to abortion. We use them to define our vision of family, ideologically and practically, through our construction of marriage and divorce and our nonrecognition of non-marital families. The corollary to the elevation of the nuclear family is the devaluation and stigmatization of other family structures. The consequences of stigmatization to those deemed deviant are more than ideological. In this Article I focus on the stigmatization of single-parent families.

Both socially and legally, we relentlessly stigmatize single parents as bad parents who have broken, incomplete, dysfunctional families which result in predictably disastrous consequences for their children. Recall the blame placed on single black mothers for the violence of young black men during the Los Angeles uprising, the condemnation of white single mother Murphy Brown (a fictional television character) for her choice of single parenthood, and the sanctioning of a young teenage mother for placing her child in day-care in order to attend college classes at the University of Michigan. Stigma is not limited to names and negative stereotypes in popular culture. We also impose economic and psychic penalties as a matter of social policy and legal structure. We continue to consign large numbers of children to poverty who have the bad luck to be born into or become the wrong kind of family. Nowhere are the penalties more evident than in the current welfare reform debate. a discourse filled with blame of single parents.

I argue in this Article that this stigma is unfounded and unjustified. The negative consequences falsely associated with the form of family are strongly linked to poverty. Poverty, in turn, is caused not by family form, but rather by a number of factors including the operation of the legal system. The structures of divorce and welfare assist in creating and perpetuating poverty among single-parent families. Ironically, the ideologies of equality and choice justify and hide harsh inequality and punishment.

In this Article, I concentrate on the ways that law both incorporates and creates stigma by looking at the legal structures surrounding divorce. In the first section of the Article, I outline what we know about single-parent families based on social science research. In the second section, I discuss how the law incorporates and creates stigma in the structure of divorce. In the third section, I suggest directions in which we need to move to reform a structure that unnecessarily imperils so many families. The dynamics of single-parent families also suggest alternative, non-hierarchical, non-patriarchal family forms.

Keywords: Family structures, stigmatization, legal system, social policy

Suggested Citation

Dowd, Nancy Elizabeth, Stigmatizing Single Parents (1995). 18 Harv. Women's L.J. 19 (1995), University of Florida Levin College of Law Research Paper, Available at SSRN:

Nancy Elizabeth Dowd (Contact Author)

University of Florida Levin College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 117625
Gainesville, FL 32611-7625
United States
352-273-0930 (Phone)
352-392-3005 (Fax)


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