Don Lemon and the Vilification of Unwed Mothers – The Feminist Wire

Don Lemon and the Vilification of Unwed Mothers

By Rabi’a Hakima

The intersection between racism and sexism is where a brown-skinned male news anchor can, from his privileged position of maleness, propose to combat racial disparities by talking down to African-American women and girls about their reproductive choices.

CNN’s Don Lemon recently agreed with Bill O’Reilly who blamed “the disintegration of the African American family” for the crime rates in African American communities. Lemon claimed that African Americans need to stop wearing saggy pants, using the N-word, littering, and discouraging education. His final and, according to him, “probably the most important” imperative was directed specifically at African-American women and girls. Said Lemon,

Just because you can have a baby, it doesn’t mean you should, especially without planning for one or getting married first.  More than 72% of children in the African-American community are born out of wedlock. That means absent fathers. And the studies show that lack of a male role model is an express train to prison, and the cycle continues.

The graphic that appeared behind Lemon as he spoke read, “72% of African-American babies born to unwed moms,” just in case Lemon’s statement could be read as a gender-neutral criticism. The message is that fathers are essential to a good upbringing, and mothers alone are inadequate. O’Reilly and Lemon’s statements are just drops in the river of rhetoric from a society that has been vilifying mothers without husbands for centuries.

Unwed mothers are not a social disease.  Lemon and others typically cite “studies” that claim children of unwed mothers are destined for poverty, prison, or poor educational outcomes. However, such studies do not show an inherent causal relationship between growing up without a father and ending up in prison or in poverty. For example, Paul Amato’s 2005 article, “The Impact of Family Formation Change on the Cognitive, Social, and Emotional Well-Being of the Next Generation,” argues that children raised by single parents are more likely to lack economic means to purchase educational resources such as books and computers. A 2011 American Sociological Association study proposes that economic hardship is responsible for the fact that unwed mothers seem to experience higher rates of stress-related health problems. The message seems to be that unwed mothers are typically poor, and poor people shouldn’t have children. If unwed mothers experience more stress, perhaps this is because they have to constantly contend with the public message that they do not have the right to exist.

Much of the difficulty of being an unwed mother comes from dealing with discrimination. As an active, engaged parent in my child’s education, I had to fight with my son’s teachers who had low expectations for him and were unwilling to invest in his educational goals because they had subscribed to the fallacy that one should not expect much from children of unwed mothers. During my Master’s program in education, I discovered that this discrimination is institutionalized and that teachers are trained to be on the lookout for children who are “at-risk” for academic failure not by assessing their individual skills, but by prejudging them based on whether or not they have one or more of a specific set of characteristics including being non-white, having immigrant parents, and living in a single-parent home. It does no good to encourage children to stay in school if school is the place where they will learn that they are nothing.

But the problem is not just schools. Discrimination against unwed mothers and their children is pervasive. I once tried to sign up for a discounted “family” membership at a local YMCA but was told that, as a single mother, I had to prove that I was widowed or divorced. When I asked what about single mothers who conceive their children as the result of rape, the representative merely shrugged and mumbled something about policy.

In a college art class to which I had taken my son with the instructor’s permission, a group of women gathered just in front of me and carried on a loud conversation about the pestilence that was unwed teenage mothers, complaining that they were having children out of wedlock for the sole purpose of living off of welfare.

News media, politicians, and public service announcements repeatedly reminded me that as a young mother who worked multiple jobs, went to college, and sacrificed a social life to spend quality time with my son, I was apparently what was wrong with this country. I cringe when I imagine the psychological torture endured by unwed mothers in New York City who have had to pass, on their way to work or school, any of the images that are part of Mayor Bloomberg’s campaign against unwed motherhood. One advertisement shows a perturbed but adorable brown-skinned girl beside the words “Honestly Mom . . . Chances are he won’t stay with you.  What happens to me?” I want to tell the little girl, Your mom will take care of you.  Chances are she’s not an idiot. Chances are she’s aware of the reality that men are often unreliable.  Chances are that’s why she didn’t wait to get married before having children.  Chances are she doesn’t need a man around to give her permission to be a good parent.

And unwed mothers have to deal with the moral judgments of random people they meet. I eventually stopped bringing up the fact that I was a mother, just to avoid the inevitable conversation:

“Oh, are you married?”


“Are you divorced?”


“Are you widowed?”


“Oooooh,” followed by a judgment of my character in the form of a snarky comment, a disapproving facial expression, or an uncontrollable urge to talk to someone else, anyone else but me.  One woman patted my hand and said, “We all make mistakes,” and I believe she thought she was being nice. I wanted to tell her that she did not know my story and had no right to decide that my son’s existence, my choice to have him and raise him, were “mistakes.”

The trope of unwed-mothers-as-social-disease is both unsupported with any real evidence and dangerous to the well-being of many mothers and children. Yet it is a popular trope because it serves the rich, white, male power structure. It perpetuates the notion that the poor are poor because of their own moral failings. Therefore, in the absurdity of a capitalist society in which a few have much more than they need and many have far less, the masses are kept in submission with the myth that people are where they deserve to be. It also serves Eurocentric racism (as the fact that Lemon was echoing O’Reilly should indicate) by perpetuating the centuries-old stereotype that African-American women and girls are hypersexual and procreate uncontrollably without thought to consequences.

And it serves the patriarchal and heterosexist power structure because it encourages women to feel that their primary goal in life should be to marry a man. The argument that an adult male in the home is necessary for the financial and moral stability of the family is predicated on archaic notions that men should and do have more economic agency than women and that women are better off in domestic supporting roles that merely complement their husbands’ public existences.

As an undergraduate student, I met several divorced mothers who were pursuing their first college degrees because they initially opted for marriage rather than education. They believed in the delusion that marrying a man was the key to making a stable home for their children. One woman lamented, “I did what I was supposed to do.”  But husbands sometimes develop substance abuse problems, lose their jobs, are incarcerated, or opt to leave, sometimes to start new families with other women or men.  Women who choose marriage to men before motherhood can become unwed mothers with a single-income budget. According to the CDC, more than half of U.S. marriages end in divorce, so to advocate marriage to a man as a golden ticket to a happy home that will produce a well-adjusted child is unrealistic.

What does this vilification of unwed motherhood say to women who take their children and leave their abusive husbands, to women and girls who choose not to abort their children conceived as the result of sexual assault, to lesbian women who choose to have children alone or with other women?

If the goal is to nurture healthy children, here are my five pieces of advice:

1. Stop telling the children of unwed mothers that they needn’t bother striving for success because their bleak destinies were fixed the moment their mothers conceived.

2. Encourage communities to support unwed mothers.

3. Understand that the unwed-mother-as-social-disease narrative perpetuates homophobia and sexism.

4. Realize that a child is always a gift, never a symptom of social disease.

5. Recognize that women can be good role models for their children as evidenced by the fact that many children of unwed mothers grow up to be healthy, happy, kind, law-abiding, intelligent, talented young people. . .just like my son.


feminism and unwed mothers, Don Lemon and unwed mothers, single mothersDr. Rabi’a Hakima has been an instructor of English at the University of Alabama at Birmingham since fall 2008. She earned her Ph.D. from Auburn University in fall 2011. Her primary research interests are feminist theory and women’s writing.


  1. TaNesha Barnes

    August 8, 2013 at 10:41 am


  2. FL_Lady

    August 8, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    Dr. Hakima:

    This piece is the BEST I have ever read regarding unwed moms. Honest, thought-provoking, and real it decimates the archaic idea that single mothers are ineffective parents. I applaud you, Dr. Hakima, and thank you for strengthening my resolve

  3. Susan McKew

    August 8, 2013 at 5:09 pm

    Dr. Hakima,
    I am a older white women,living in a predominately poor black neighborhood. Poverty seems to be the common denominator.While I agree with your assessment of black single moms, you must also look at who controls societal infrastructures. These women have very little recourse. Who controls all societal constructs and infrastructures? One must look beyond the “obvious.”

  4. NVC

    August 8, 2013 at 11:46 pm

    Bravo and thank you for this thought provoking piece. For me, the MOST troubling part of the “unwed-mother-as-social-disease” narrative is that it comes from some of the most unexpected places. I have been in the company of seemingly open minded, progressive, conscious, Black-women-centered thinkers(i.e. a safe space)and this narrative will jump into the conversation. I almost expect it from the Bill O’Reillys and even the Don Lemons. But I am taken aback when it comes from sisters in the struggle. Again, great piece.

  5. Wise Angel

    August 9, 2013 at 7:03 am

    Excellently written article! I hope this will be read by those who need “to be preached to outside the choir” so they will understand why I answer the question “Are you married?” with the answer “Hell NO!”

  6. Babs

    August 9, 2013 at 9:23 am

    Dear Dr Hanika, ditto: FL_Lady, well said!
    I do, however have one criticism and that is in regard to No. 5. I am ardently Pro-Choice. Living in highly patriarchal society in a poor country that has appallingly high rape statistics, I simply cannot see a child as necessarily being a gift. A recent study showed that the more intelligent a woman the less likely she is to have children! This is not a reflection of economic circumstance, but the realisation that as humans we do have a choice. Still, like unmarried mothers, childless women are also frowned on and discriminated against by society.

    • Rabi'a Hakima

      August 14, 2013 at 7:31 pm

      Thank you for your comment. I too am pro-choice but NOT because there are some children who do not deserve to be born. I stand by my belief that ALL children are gifts, but I support the right of any woman to choose to return the gift without unwrapping it. Based on my own experience, I do not assume that rape as the means of conception necessarily negates the mother’s ability to raise and benefit from nurturing her child.

      Ultimately, pro-choice feminists cannot just advocate abortion as the only “choice.” We must acknowledge that women’s choices include giving birth to and raising their children.

  7. Rene

    August 9, 2013 at 8:31 pm


  8. Sherri Stoneburner

    August 9, 2013 at 10:49 pm

    No matter how enlightened society claims, there is always ignorance lurking in the wings.

    A woman does not need a man to be successful.
    People are free to live and protect themselves as they chose. A family is more than a man, woman and child. The dynamics of a family and how it interacts, is much more important than who is in it. Sometimes a mom and the support system she builds around her and her child are the best, most nurturing and successful form of a family possible. Sometimes, it’s a mom and a grandma, a dad on his own, a mom and dad, whatever. There are so many ways to build a family. And regardless of circumstances, that family can be very successful.

    If only those who judge and destroy, would they themselves be judged and destroyed. Since that is not likely, keep talking and educating the masses.. if even only one single mom gains courage and strength to keep fighting against such ugliness, you win.

  9. Dannette

    August 13, 2013 at 7:36 am

    This piece is excellent. I especially appreciate how you spend time looking at the ways in which this toxic scapegoating stigmatizes and harms the kids as well as the women. I was one of those kids.

    My biggest gripe in all this, which is kind of dealt with in one of your points, is how the idea of “single motherhood” ties a woman’s choice of what to do with her body to the man’s responsibility to parent. Why is the man only expected to be a father as long as the woman is “his”? What social or cultural assumptions are we making when we say a man is only expected to parent if he’s with the woman? I am a married mother (with a second baby due in a matter of days, praise the lord), and if for some reason, my husband and I were to divorce, my son would always have two parents. Nothing but death would keep either of us from actively and lovingly parenting our children, irrespective of our relationship status. But, the language of “single motherhood” is predicated on the notion that, in order for your child to have two parents, you have to be sharing your bed. Why? Says who? Says patriarchy, of course. And everyone who parrots this nonsense.

    I would also point out that even the statistics they use to talk about black single motherhood are misleading. Tim Wise just publicized some interesting facts, specifically that while the overall share of black children born to single mothers is still very high, there are actually fewer single black mothers having children nowadays. Significantly fewer than, say, 10-20 years ago. The way this works, simply, is that married black couples are having less children then they used to. You know how your parents were like, 1 of 8, 9, 10 kids in their families? But, you and your married peers only have like 2 or 3 children? Well, what that means is, even if fewer single black women are having children (but they’re maybe having larger families than married ones), then the overall share of children born to single women can be higher than those born to married ones. Wise also noted that the rate of single white motherhood is rapidly climbing, on the other hand, making one wonder why O’Reilly and Lemon are lecturing white girls to keep their legs crossed. I mention these last two points, not to validate the idea that we should be concerned about the share of women born to single women. But rather to highlight the misrepresentation of statistical information and the ways in which these “facts” are used, as the author points out, to promote the idea of the amoral and hypersexual black female.

  10. Dannette

    August 13, 2013 at 7:49 am

    I’m sorry, but I have one more point. I don’t remember the author, but a black scholar did some research about the moment in our history when black women lost our reputation as good mothers, so to speak. Folks may recall that it was only two generations ago that, not only were we often seen as maternal paragons (think “mammy” and “The Help”), but white folks thought we were fit enough to raise their children. To wet nurse for them, cook their meals, discipline their children, etc. Scholars have pointed out how, when we began to move out of domestic work and into other professional areas, like teaching, nursing, and clerical, the notion of black women as delinquent and inadequate in the home began to become popular. This coincides historically with desegregation and the freedom struggle of the 60s. So, this is principally about race and class. Black women’s audacity in thinking we could compete with white women (and with men) in the workplace is what cost us our “glowing reputation” of chubby, lovable, “de-sexed” matrons. We wouldn’t exactly lament that development, except in so far as it even further enabled this other disgusting narrative to blossom.

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  12. Jake Smith

    August 13, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    I love the hypocrisy of liberals these days. You tell women that having children whenever the want and without responsibility is their right, yet at the same time you advocate abortions. It’s shocking that the feminist movement has so deteriorated so much, that almost anything is perceived by an attack on women. You want to know when you will be treated as equals? When you stop acting like the world owes you so much simply because you are a woman. Don Lemon’s statement was by no means vilifying women, but rather empowering them. He was saying that they have the power to change black culture and how they are perceived in this country. By no means is he saying this is the fault of the mother. Most people, liberals or conservatives, would agree it is the fault of the man for being a coward and leaving in the first place. The lack of a father is the male’s fault not the female. But at the same time, women can very easily prevent this from happening. There is so much irresponsibility in this society, maybe it would be smart to close your legs until you actually are 100% are ready for a child.

  13. Kay Everett

    August 13, 2013 at 11:42 pm

    Dr. Hakima, thank you for this insightful and much-needed piece. I find the way single mothers are treated and talked about in the media, by politicians, and by society at large to be very distressing. I don’t have children yet, but I firmly want to be a single mother by choice, because of the wonderful examples of my family. My mother, my maternal grandmother, and my maternal great grandmother were all single mothers (for varying reasons – widowhood, divorce, by choice), and as a result my family has become strongly matrilineal. All three women raised good children who have grown into strong, independent, responsible, kind, generous, and successful adults, and I want to honour this tradition with my own potential children because I know just how wonderful growing up with a single mother can be. Any hardships we experienced along the way were opportunities to learn and grow and become better people, and this is what I want for my children. But I worry, not because I don’t think that I can be good enough as a single mother (I know I can), or because I don’t think that I can provide financially (I have a good, realiable job with some flexibility, and have put a lot of thought into how I would manage child care with the resources available to me), but because of the influences that I can’t control, namely those that you’ve described here. The vilification of single mothers and their children, the expectation that children with a sole mother will necessarily become delinquent, the experience you described of teachers having low expectations for your son, the treatment of children of sole mothers as second class citizens, the idea that a marriage somehow magically makes a family – I worry that my child would lose out on opportunities solely because of people’s negative attitudes, rather than anything lacking in my child or myself. Which is why articles like this are so important. They serve to wake people up to the reality that all of the propaganda about single mothers is not based on fact, it’s based on opinion, and misguided opinion at that. And opinions can – and need to- change.

  14. MacHeath

    August 14, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    I’m one of those white males from an affluent background. I also have a sister who is a never married single mom, and a much better one than the uninvolved country club nightmare who gave birth to me. I agree with this article and wish more people in my demographic could read it, there are a lot of good points– I think most of the problems single moms have come down to how hard it is for most people to build a stable family life on a single income and without childcare.

    That said, ‘every child is a gift’ is an attitude that makes my teeth grind. Too many children in our world are born to suffer, hardly having any chance in life at all, and it would be better that they were not born. We need to support unwed mothers, but we shouldn’t take that so far as supporting every choice to have a child.

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  19. mhaven

    August 20, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    I love this. Thanks for writing it.

    It’s kind of funny to see Don Lemon sitting there – as a gay, black man – in judgment of black women. Well, it’s not really funny.

    Lemon was puffed up and self-righteous, that’s why I can’t decide if it was a publicity gimmick or if he really meant it. His puffed-upness makes me think he meant it.

    That crap about manless woman being deficient is a religious myth. What does Lemon – again, a gay, black man – mean to be mouthing religious myths? Doesn’t Don know that there’s a religious myth about men who love other men?

    Pfft. Anyway.

    I am glad you wrote this. We can *uck whomever we want; that is our priviledge as women. We can marry, or not marry if we want. We are wise enough to choose. There are NOT millions of black women rejecting viable male suitors just because. If there was a viable male suitor, I’m sure we woulda’ married him.