Beyond Dollars and Cents—A Cultural Supplement to the “Breadwinner Moms” Debate

Breadwinner MomsHeterosexual married women with children are out-earning their husbands in record numbers. Philip Cohen calculated that about 23% of such couples are those in which women earn more income than their husbands. This may sound like a small proportion. Yet, as Cohen notes, “it’s an increase from 4% half a century ago.” So, before I question the debate, I just want to note that some significant shifts in gender relations and household earnings have taken place, likely exacerbated in recent years by the toll of the recent recession.

Yet, discussions of “breadwinner moms” are also part of the so-called “end of men” debate, wherein men are seen as being out-earned, out-educated, and out-done by women in all of the formerly male historical preserves. Framing women as “the richer sex” or transitions as somehow evidence of “the end of men” is premature and inaccurate.* 30COVER-popupThough women’s wages have increased in recent years while men’s have declined, focusing solely on these two facts fails to take into account where men’s and women’s wages started. The wage gap has reduced, but most estimates find that the gender wage gap is still somewhere between 77 and 81 cents on the dollar. Women’s salaries, on average, have remained lower than men’s (despite the closing gap from both directions). Beyond this, women remain disproportionately more likely to be poor. Coontz presents this as – at best – “a convergence of economic fortunes” rather than something like “female ascendance” (here).

SDT-2013-05-breadwinner-moms-1-1Although it’s premature to claim that women are somehow replacing men atop the economic food chain, as I said before, some significant changes have occurred. A recent Pew Report on Breadwinner Moms documents that in just over 40% of households with children under the age of 18, women are either the sole or primary breadwinners. Including single mothers in this category might seem a bit unfair as these women are sole breadwinners by default. But, Philip Cohen compares married heterosexual households with children under 18 (here) to discuss the trend. Cohen’s big critique–and I agree with him–is how we’re classifying “breadwinner moms” and what this classification conceals. The way it’s measured classifies any woman in a heterosexual couple who out-earns her husband by $1 a year as a “breadwinner mom.” This stretches the meaning of breadwinner just a bit. As Cohen documents, in about 38% of married couples in which wives out-earn their husbands, they’re only bringing in between 50 and 60% of the household income. That is, for women, the most common way that they occupy the status of “breadwinner.” And if we add in those couples in which wives are earning 50-70% of the income, that accounts for about 62% of “breadwinner moms.” Cohen suggests that the vast majority of this shift in household earnings is better understood as “breadsharing” than “breadwinning.” Conversely, the most common way men occupy the breadwinner status remains earning 100% of the household income.

So, the discussion of “breadwinner moms” as 23% of heterosexual, married couple households with children under 18 conceals the fact that while this number does show considerable change, breadwinner moms and breadwinner dads exhibit remarkable differences–not least of which is the relative amount of bread they are “winning.”

So, what’s missing? I was struck by another thought that’s a bit more challenging to make sense of with quantitative data: how are husbands and wives making sense of their two incomes in these dual-earner families in which women are earning more than their husbands, but not by leaps and bounds? Do these women understand themselves as “breadwinner moms”? Do they benefit in some measurable way from this status?

Women’s work in dual-earner heterosexual households with children has been found in many studies to be discursively minimized through a variety of strategies. For instance, in Weaving Work and Motherhood, Anita Garey found that mothers’ work lives are often made invisible to their children in ways that fathers’ work lives are not. Similarly, in Working Hard to Make Do, Margaret Nelson and Joan Smith found that husbands in dual-earner couples routinely “minimize the importance of the work done by their wives and define themselves as the family breadwinner.” While they also found that some women rejected this framing of the significance of their work, many women adopted a similar discourse as their husbands, symbolically framing their financial contributions to the household as “trivial,” enabling men to retain the “breadwinner” identity. Similarly, in The Package Deal, Nicholas Townsend addresses the ways husbands discuss their wives’ earnings in remarkably similar language (even when they make a sizable portion of the household income). Many of the fathers in Townsend’s study subtly trivialized their wives’ work and earnings–“to keep her busy,” “to get out and socialize,” etc. In these small ways, they retain a discourse of “family responsibility” for their own work and earnings, while their wives’ work often is framed as “extra.”

Some of this emerges from the history of wives’ earnings in American households. In The Social Meaning of Money, Viviana Zelizer documents the ways that women’s domestic earnings were made sense of in the early 20th century:

Earned domestic money, much like the allowance, thus retained a separate identity as a gift, not as real money. Money earned by married women in the labor force was also special and different. (here)

Women’s earned income was referred to as “pin money,” and was understood as supplementary household income earned by wives. Of course, in reality, household money is all part of the same pot. How couples decide what money is spent on what is a social decision. Whether couples discuss wives’ extra income as spent on groceries, rent, vacations, or anything else is a strategy that allows them to discursively frame the income as more or less meaningful for household maintenance and functioning. And if Zelizer’s history tells us anything, it’s that women’s income has historically been framed as “supplementary.” Thus, contemporary couples’ discussing wives’ earnings as “extra” are continuing a historical trend of symbolically reproducing the male breadwinner ideal even as the proportion of bread he wins begins to decline.

What’s significant about all of this research is that it is not only how much money each person makes, but how those wages are made sense of within the family unit. For instance, it is entirely plausible that a husband might earn 40% (and maybe less) of the household income, but feel as though his wages provide the backbone of family’s earnings by discussing them as paying for things like rent, food, children’s education expenses, etc. And while some wives might challenge this framing, others might support it for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they too are invested in the male breadwinner ideal (even if it doesn’t technically describe their own situation). Perhaps they recognize the weight of this ideal on their husbands. Perhaps they understand their own careers as more subject to family contingency regardless of how much they make (i.e., they might see themselves as the one likely to leave or cut back to part time in an emergency).

Similar discussions are relevant to debates about the closing gap in the chore wars. Husbands’ and wives’ time spent on household chores are converging. The chasm that used to characterize women’s “second shift,” has slowly been chipped away. And yet, counting all of the hours each person spends on household chores is probably inadequate. If we got to a 50%-50% arrangement, it might be possible for inequality to more subtly be perpetuated in other ways (less easy to identify on survey responses). For instance, who is seen as responsible for the household? How are the chores divided? Who sets the schedule? This is labor as well–possibly less easy to quantify, but incredibly meaningful. Similarly, status as breadwinner is not only earned by household income, but discursively produced as husbands and wives discuss the social meaning of the earnings each of them bring to the table.

It’s a small issue, but adds an important element to debates about breadwinner moms. Do, breadwinner moms earning 50-70% of the household income recognize themselves as “breadwinners”? Do their husbands and children? What kinds of benefits do they accrue from this status? Are these benefits similar to those men receive as breadwinners? Some research suggests that this might not be the case. And while some of these questions can be answered by getting into a bit more depth with the survey data, others require more in depth analysis. My guess is that women’s relative earnings are changing faster than family relations and cultural ideals. Breadwinner status is not only earned in the workforce; it is collectively negotiated at home. And we’re learning precious little about these negotiations by focusing only on the dollars and cents.


*See Stephanie Coontz’s excellent explanation of some of the problems with this discourse here and Philip Cohen’s series of posts on the topic here.

One thought on “Beyond Dollars and Cents—A Cultural Supplement to the “Breadwinner Moms” Debate

  1. If there is one thing that I could say to young people setting up their families, it is that the assumption that men’s earnings go for hard assets, such as a mortgage or retirement savings, (i.e. that men are responsible for – and more entitled to – property and capital ownership) and women’s earnings go for child care and consumables (i.e. that child care is not the responsibility of both parents, basically half the responsibility of each parent in basic terms), and men’s promotions are worth getting at the expense of women’s promotions, is a strategy that will (a) leave your children, regardless of biological sex, with psychological distortions that affect their success in school (particularly if they are boys) and later earnings (particularly if they are girls), (b) will make it more difficult to retire at a reasonable age (unless someone gets into exploitative versions of capitalism like Mitt Romney or exploitative versions of politics like Obama, and (c) will make you marriage more likely to fail.

    Our federal tax and benefits system works against 2-earner/2-parent families and can sometimes seduce them into thinking other family structures are better, but 99% of the time, people who do this end up just feeding the Man and welfare mothers.

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