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The Idea That Men Should Be the Sole Breadwinner Is Surprisingly Recent

The arrangement isn’t making anyone happy, so why do so many still cling to it?

When I gave up full-time work two years ago to hold up my side of the bargain — the deal with my wife had gone something like, “Okay, fine, we can have another child, but only if a) you please learn how to drive, and b) you stay home and take care of it this time” — the immediate effects on my self-esteem were negligible. I didn’t experience a dramatic loss of self-worth: My dignity remained fully intact — in fact, when talking about it out loud, my stay-at-home dad status felt more like a badge of honor than any kind of demotion. I didn’t feel any less of a man (though there would be only a tiny amount of wiggle room in that respect in any case). My male ego might be fragile in many, many ways, but I discovered, being the main financial provider for my family wasn’t one its triggers.

What I didn’t realize at the time, as I traded a daily commute for chores and childcare, was that I was also participating in a global socio-economic shift in how families organize their livelihoods. Or rather, my wife was. Around the world, the proportion of women who are the major earners in their families has been growing in the past couple of decades. According to a 2015 report, a third of working mothers in the U.K. are now breadwinners while four-fifths of European countries have seen marked increases in mothers who bring in at least half their families’ income since 2004. In the U.S., meanwhile, the figures for that same year are even more dramatic: 42 percent of mothers were sole or primary earners, reported the Center for American Progress, while another 22 percent contributed from a quarter to half of their family’s take-home. 

This rise of woman-as-breadwinner has its complement in the transformation that’s taken place over the past few years in society’s image of what it means to be a responsible, modern, Instagramming father. And it might also be why views like that expressed by Piers Morgan in October 2018 — when he papoose-shamed James Bond actor Daniel Craig for betraying masculinity by carrying his baby about in public — feel so awkwardly anachronistic and deserving of an avalanche of derision online.

Still, for many men, any departure from the “male breadwinner wage,” pictured as a strict separation of labor between a financially supportive father and a domestically bound mother, remains nothing less than a screaming affront to Nature (all of which can be instantly dismissed with two of the most gladdening words in the English language: Emperor penguins). From this Morgan-esque perspective, the role of sole provider is so deeply etched into the male psyche that it feels as though it must have been the bedrock of society going at least as far back as Fred Flintstone. But as a norm that governs people’s lives, “man win bread; woman put oven on” hasn’t actually been around all that long.

How the Bread Was Won

It was to a large extent “a product of the industrial revolution,” says Sarah Richardson, deputy head of the history department at the University of Warwick in the U.K. and a specialist in gender history. Which means that it first emerged, along with many other of Western society’s most tenacious social anxieties, in Great Britain at some point in the 1700s and 1800s. “The combination of more regulated work patterns, a move from the countryside to the town and the dominance of a bourgeois ideology, which separated the private sphere (the home) from the public (the world of work and politics), led to the rise of the idea of a breadwinner wage,” says Richardson.

In one sense, this was partly because it was the great upheaval of industrialization — a deeply traumatic process for British society, and one for which all previous human history offered no template — that gave birth to our modern conception of a “wage” in the first place.

Pre-industrial society in Britain, as well as throughout the colonial-era in North America, “was largely agrarian, or in the 18th century proto-industrial,” says Richardson. And for the vast majority, family life followed a pattern that had been in place since the Middle Ages: “Household labor was largely shared between all family members although there were tasks dominated by women, such as milking and cheese-making.” While childcare was mainly the responsibility of women, says Richardson, their respective roles weren’t tied to notions of income and earnings: “The economy was generally subsistence-based — each household would produce enough for themselves to live on, perhaps selling any surplus at the local market.”

In almost all parts of British society, there were few ideological barriers stopping women taking on what would come to be defined as “men’s work.” The world of employment, as Richardson describes it, was somewhat gender-fluid: “In rural areas, women worked alongside their husbands and children on the land and tending animals. Some unmarried men and women would be farm servants. In urban areas women would support the family business — retailing, small manufacturing and the like — with many widows taking over the management of the business after their husbands died. There was a small ‘middling sort’ [i.e., middle class] in urban and rural areas, and those women would also tend to work alongside their husbands and children.”

By the second half of the 19th century, though, all this had changed. The unwritten rule that husbands went to work while wives stayed home was “established first among the middle classes,” wrote the British sociologist Colin Creighton in 1996, then “spread widely throughout the working class with increasing momentum from the middle decades of the 19th century.”

While historians broadly agree on the timing, debate rages on over exactly why the “male breadwinner family” became the backbone of industrial society — first in Britain and then by extension in other parts of Europe, Australia and the U.S. One theory popular in the 1980s was that as the great mass of jobs migrated from the countryside to shift work in factories, women found employers increasingly hostile to the needs of childcare, and in particular breastfeeding (although further research uncovered a number of factory owners of the era who set aside specific times in the day for female workers to nurse their babies). And if this has the air of a grimy Dickensian nightmare, it’s worth remembering that it’s only as of 2018 in the U.S., with legislation passed in Utah and Idaho, that the right to breastfeed at work has become protected in all 50 states.

As industrialization took hold, women were also finding themselves being actively barred from paid employment in many of the new industries such as mining and the railroads. Governments passed a series of laws which, says Richardson, “restricted the hours women and children could work and in which industries,” while working-class men themselves, newly organized into trade unions, pushed to have their wives removed from the workforce: “They lobbied for a breadwinner wage, arguing that working-class as well as middle-class women should be able to afford to stay at home and focus on domestic duties,” Richardson explains.

A huge array of pressures — from pulpits, from newspapers, from the shrill moralizing of the Victorian middle-classes — helped turn domestic economics into a social dogma that was accepted by everyone. Ironically, though, while the breadwinner principle was swallowed whole by the poorer parts of society, it did little to prevent those women from entering the workforce. In many industries, says Richardson, “Wages weren’t high enough for most of the 19th century for women (and children) to be able to afford not to work.” It was the women of the middle classes who felt the walls of their homes close around them, as they were “kept out of paid employment by the dictates of the bourgeois ideology of domesticity. Very few avenues were open to them apart from acting as governesses or engaging in philanthropy.”

According to Katrina Honeyman and Jordan Goodman, who analyzed the gradual spread of the family wage across Europe, it was simply “an unrealistic goal for the majority of people, yet it was supported by most — women as well as men.” During an organized labor dispute in 1854, for example, in Preston — a center of textile manufacturing in the northwest of England — agitator Margaret Fletcher argued passionately for fair wages for her menfolk. Strikingly, though, she pressed her case on the basis that in Preston, an area where large numbers of women continued to be admitted into the workforce, the “natural order of things is reversed”; if middle-class men made their women stay at home, she said, then working-class men should have that right too. It was, she declared, “a disgrace to an Englishman to allow his wife to go out to work.”

Mind the Gap

Heightening competition between men and women for jobs in overcrowded cities is cited by Creighton as “an important spur to the growing support within the working class for the male breadwinner ideal.” A powerful extra incentive was the fact that women, across all industries, were so much cheaper to hire. A workers’-rights activist from the mid-19th century, John Vincent, explained his comrades’ concerns: “The throwing [of] so many new hands into the labour market has an immediate effect in reducing wages so that after the workman has sent his wife and children to work, their very labour competes with his, and wages soon fall to the price at which the cheapest labour can be purchased.”

This points to a surprising aspect of the period in which the male breadwinner standard came about. Such a shift may have drastically reshaped family life and gender roles throughout Western society, but it wasn’t entirely responsible for one of early capitalism’s most egregious legacy issues — the wide disparity in wages between women and men. A number of economic historians have traced the origins of unequal pay back much further than the industrial revolution, to the guilds and craft trades of the late Middle Ages, when across Europe, wrote Honeyman and Goodman in 1991, “while the nature of men’s work remained constant, fundamental changes in women’s employment patterns occurred… The transformation of women’s work began in towns where women became excluded from crafts and skilled work and were relegated to low paid and low productivity employment.”

According to Creighton, there is some evidence that the dawning of the industrial revolution initially had a positive effect on this. He says the gap in wages actually narrowed “in manufacturing in both Britain and the United States over the course of the 19th century but (at least in the United States) intensified in office work in the 20th century.” More recent research, though, suggests that these improvements only applied to certain forms of employment and that it was “largely… single women free from family responsibilities who could profit from the momentous economic changes of the era of industrialization.”

Currently in the U.S., the gender pay gap is trending nowhere fast. While it’s thought to have begun to erode in the 1970s, especially among younger adults, according to the latest Pew research that trend has stagnated in the last 15 years. In 2017, women earned around 82 cents for every dollar accrued by men — the same as they earned in 2005. And while it might have developed independently from the male breadwinner concept, pay disparity has only been intensified by a century-and-a-half of men being the default bringers home of bacon.

Despite being addressed by legislation since the 1960s — beginning with the inclusion of employment discrimination based on sex among the practices outlawed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act — and liberating landmarks such as the female contraceptive pill and the rise of feminism, dislodging the overall preference for men in the labor force has proved to be backbreaking work.

Why has the male breadwinner pattern held on to its place at the head of the table for so long? Because it wasn’t just entrenched in people’s heads; it became woven into the way Western economies functioned. Says Sarah Richardson, “The segregation of home and work led to the ‘politicization’ of work as a concept. Paid work outside the home was accorded higher value than unpaid domestic work. Men in government and in trade unions consolidated and protected this status, and it proved, and is still proving, very difficult for women to enter the workplace — and certainly not on the same terms or earnings as men.”

The odd thing about the dogged persistence of this norm is that, however it became so central to our culture, it’s likely to have been a universal source of misery — not just for the women it held back but also for the generations of men whose careers it’s propped up. According to a University of Connecticut study from 2016, “Is Breadwinning Hazardous or Protective?,” men who take on the role of sole breadwinner are, on average, 5 percent less happy and 3.5 percent less healthy than the members of couples who contribute equally to family finances. The researchers, who looked at 15 years’ worth of national health and wellbeing data, found that the opposite was also true — when women are the main providers, it tends to give them a lift. According to Christin Munsch, who led the study, “Whereas men’s psychological well-being and health tend to increase as their wives take on more economic responsibility, women’s psychological well-being also improves as they take on more economic responsibility.”

And this is a finding I can personally attest to. When I stepped out of the role of primary provider, I’m pretty sure I did feel something akin to 150 years’ worth of heavy industry and social expectation gliding off my shoulders — the uptick in my quality of life has definitely been worth the financial hit. I still haven’t learned to drive, but that’s only because, as a non-breadwinner and dedicated co-performer of household tasks, I’m keeping it pre-industrial.