Absent Mother States

The Emotional Afterlives of the Welfare State in the United Kingdom, 1979 to the Present Day

Public Lecture by Helen Charman (Clare College, Cambridge).

The Emotional Afterlives of the Welfare State in the United Kingdom, 1979 to the Present Day. Credits: See Red Women’s Workshop
Credits: See Red Women’s Workshop

‘I love the state,’ the British historian Carolyn Steedman writes in a 2017 essay, ‘because it has loved me.’ This particular piece, called ‘Middle-Class Hair,’ is about the 1963 Robbins Report, which recommended the foundation of six new universities, but it could just as easily be about another government report, the one compiled in 1942 by the Liberal economist William Beveridge and his wife Janet, which recommended the basis of what became the British welfare state. Steedman and other feminist writers of her generation (born in 1947, she is almost exactly the same age as the National Health Service) often figured the state in these affective, maternal terms: its provision of milk, malt, orange juice, school dinners, healthcare, and education, performed a primary nurturing function. Despite the demonisation and dismantling of the welfare state in Britain and Northern Ireland during Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministership and afterwards, this maternal conception has persisted long past many of the state’s original maternal functions.

In this talk, Helen Charman will be drawing on the research behind her book, Mother State. Its project is to bring together elements that are usually considered distinct and separate: the state of being a mother itself, including but not limited to the physical experiences of pregnancy and birth; the relationship between mothers and the state; the uses the state puts mothering to – its politicization, in other words – and, finally, the conception of the welfare state as some kind of maternal entity in and of itself. In the talk, beginning with Thatcher’s highly freighted, gendered position in contemporary literature and culture, Charman will chart the cultural and psychosocial legacy of the idea of the welfare state, and how it shaped responses to the actual shrinking of the provisions of that state over the 1980s and beyond.


Dr Helen Charman is a Fellow, College Teaching Officer and Part Ia Director of Studies in English at Clare College, University of Cambridge. Her first book, Mother State, is forthcoming from Allen Lane in August 2024. Before taking up her Fellowship at Clare, she taught in the English Studies department at Durham University. Her work has been shortlisted for the Ivan Juritz Prize for Creative Experiment, and her doctoral research was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. From 2020-21, she held an editorial residency at MAP magazine supported by Creative Scotland.