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?

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Gendering Your Household by Smell

There’s a small body of work on the sociology of smell that deals with gender.  Scents, their cultural meaning, and our experiences of them are culturally mediated processes (here, here, and here).  What women and men ought to smell like is, in some ways, just another of the various ways in which we are all held accountable to recognizable performances of gender.  Controlling one’s own scent is a small part of this process.  And controlling the scent of your home–perhaps in different ways for different spaces within the home–is a piece of gendering our social environments as well.

Yankee Candle stores are always fun.  I generally find myself in one some time in winter or fall when I want my house to smell like I just baked something with apples in it or like a fir tree had an accident in my living room.  Like a great deal of stores dedicated to selling niche home décor, Yankee primarily caters to women.  Desiring your home to smell like “Fluffy Towels,” “Autumn Leaves,” a “Bahama Breeze,” or “Home Sweet Home” is something that many people likely classify as a “feminine” desire (regardless of the gender of the desirer in question).

Like a number of products catering primarily to women, Yankee has developed a “men’s line.”  I’ve always thought that gendering scents has been somewhat ridiculous–that the line between perfume and cologne was less clear than it’s often depicted.  Smells don’t have a gender, do they?

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Designing Homes that Made Life Better (and Worse) for Women

The history of American home architecture and interior design—as the history of many fields—is a domain that was initially dominated by men. As such, the design of homes was largely to men’s specifications, with men’s interests in mind. Women’s entry into the field initially emerged, as one might expect, through influence and suggestion before they were involved in actual home design.

Ruth Schwartz Cowan (1983) wrote a wonderful book, More Work for Mother, tracing the historical origins of Hochschild’ssecond shift.” Cowan argued that the changes in the home with the advent of industrialization had the somewhat counterintuitive effect of creating more work for the household at precisely the same time as less people were understood as responsible for the work. The household was, as Cowan famously put it, “incompletely industrialized,” leaving more work for women. So, new appliances, like refrigerators and stoves brought with them more things to clean, and standards of cleanliness began to reach new heights.

In the U.S., it was women who were at the forefront of technological innovation in the home at the turn of the 20th century. When domestic technology entered the American home, it entered–as Rybcyznski said–“through the kitchen door.” When women did begin designing homes, the homes they designed were decidedly different from those designed by men. The “masculine” interest in the architecture of the home at the time was primarily visual. Though the 20th century brought with it a new appreciation for functionality and utility, men’s designs were concerned primarily with the beauty and aesthetics of the home (see Andrew J. Downing for example). Even some of the European designers who were more concerned with comfort (like Robert Kerr) were less concerned with convenience, considering it the business of servants and women once the house was already constructed. Men’s architectural books were written to men, but some of the early American women who wrote books on architectural design wrote their books to women. Women, they argued, were the primary “users” of the home, and as such, ought to play a leading role in its construction and design.

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Gender Segregation By Victorian Design

Homes have always illustrated a great deal about those who inhabit them.  And changes in architectural design reflect much more than simply new techniques and styles.  They also reflect changing relationships between groups of people.  Victorian architecture is famous for a number of things, but one of my favorites is the notion that rooms really ought to only have one purpose.*  One of my favorite ways that this is illustrated is by highlighting the lack of a bedside table in most bedrooms in the 1800s in England.  Reading (or anything else for that matter) was an activity that was best undertaken in a separate (and more appropriate) room of its own.

To accomplish this, larger houses had an extraordinary number of rooms.  Smaller houses were forced to shift furniture around depending on what was going on that particular day.  While one of the premises of modern architectural design involves breaking down walls and opening up space, the Victorians were much more concerned with erecting walls and closing spaces off.  There are all sorts of remnants of this time still present in homes today – though they are often put to separate use.  For instance, parlors are still present in many homes.  They’re typically small rooms near the front of the house where household guests would have congregated, and within which Victorian forms of courtship took place (see Bailey on courtship here).  But few of us use these spaces as they were originally intended.  They feel impractical by today’s standards.

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Where are Men and Women Happiest in Their Homes?

There have been a number of different methods for attempting to document what people do in their homes, how people living together divide housework between themselves, and how they feel about it.  Initially, scholars just asked people questions like, “How many hours a week do you spend [fill in the blank with various household activities and obligations]?”  Certainly this method lends itself to statistical analysis, but what are we actually learning about people?

Research has found that people tend to over-estimate how much housework they actually do when asked on surveys.  Time use diary studies are a bit different and a lot more accurate.  This method asks participants to record their daily tasks and activities (where they were, what they did, how long they spent doing it, who they did it with, etc.) for small periods of time over the course of an entire day.  Most scholars agree that time use diary studies are more accurate portrayals of people’s actual experiences than surveys.  And it makes sense.  If you’ve ever tried to lose weight by eating less and then tried counted calories to lose weight, you can understand why.

Less research, however, focuses explicitly on how we feel when we’re doing different things throughout the day.  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (a psychology professor at the University of Chicago) set out to do just that (see here and here).  He gave study participants beepers that were programmed to go off at random moments throughout the day.  When paged, participants are asked to record what they are doing, who they are with, what they are thinking about, rate their emotional experience of the moment, and – significant for this blog – where they are

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