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The Problem With 'Breadwinners'

The term, which dates back to a time when America elevated to reverential status the woman-home/man-work ideal, implies that both parties can't contribute to a household's earnings.


When the Pew report on mothers who are breadwinners came out, I complained about calling wives “breadwinners” if they earn $1 more than their husbands:

A wife who earns $1 more than her husband for one year is not the “breadwinner” of the family. That’s not what made “traditional” men the breadwinners of their families — that image is of a long-term pattern in which the husband/father earns all or almost all of the money, which implies a more entrenched economic domination.

To elaborate a little, there are two issues here. One is empirical: Today’s female breadwinners are much less economically dominant than the classical male breadwinner—and even than the contemporary male breadwinner, as I will show. And second, conceptually breadwinner is not a majority-share concept determined by a fixed percentage of income, but an ideologically specific construction of family provision.

Let’s go back to the Pew data setup: heterogamously married couples with children under age 18 in the year 2011 (from Census data provided by IPUMS). In 23 percent of those couples the wife’s personal income is greater than her husband’s—that’s the big news, since it’s an increase from four percent half a century ago. This, to the Pew authors and media everywhere, makes her the “primary breadwinner,” or, in shortened form (as in their title), “breadwinner moms.” (That’s completely reasonable with single mothers, by the way; I’m just working on the married-couple side of the issue—just a short chasm away.)

The 50 percent+1 standard conceals that these male “breadwinners” are winning a greater share of the bread than are their female counterparts. Specifically, the average father-earning-more-than-his-wife earns 81 percent of the couple’s income; the average mother-earning-more-than-her-husband earns 69 percent of the couple’s income. Here is the distribution in more detail:


This shows that by far the most common situation for a female “breadwinner” is to be earning between 50 percent and 60 percent of the couple’s income—the case for 38 percent of such women. For the father “breadwinners,” though, the most common situation—for 28 percent of them—is to be earning all of the income, a situation that is three-times more common than the reverse.

Collapsing data into categories is essential for understanding the world. But putting these two groups into the same category and speaking as if they are equal is misleading.

This is especially problematic, I think, because of the historical connotation of the term breadwinner. The term dates back to 1821, says the Oxford English Dictionary. That’s from the heyday of America’s separate spheres ideology, which elevated to reverential status the woman-home/man-work ideal. Breadwinners in that Industrial Revolution era were not defined by earning one percent more than their wives. They earned all of the money, ideally (meaning, if their earnings were sufficient) but, just as importantly, they were the only one permanently working for pay outside the home. (JSTOR has references going back to the 1860s which confirm this usage.)

Modifying “breadwinner” with “primary” is better than not, but that subtlety has been completely lost in the media coverage. Consider these headlines from a Google news search:

• Huffington Post: All-Male Fox Panel Freaks Out About Female Breadwinners
• New York Times: U.S. Women on the Rise as Family Breadwinner
• ABC News: Record Number of Female Breadwinners, According to Pew

Further down there are some references to “primary breadwinners,” but that’s rare.

Maybe we should call those 100 percent-ers breadwinners, and call the ones closer to 50 percent breadsharers.

This post originally appeared onSociological Images, a Pacific Standard partner site.