There never was a traditional male breadwinner

I am currently writing a talk about work/life integration in an age of changing gender norms in the family. In other words, my wife and I both work, we both spend as much time as possible with the kids, but because my schedule is more flexible and my wife travels, I do a lot of the child-care work. 

I argue that this kind of caregiving is central to my notion of masculinity.

I like to talk about gender norms, rather than actual roles, because norms rely on perceptions. We, as a culture, perceive a shift in which fathers are now doing more caregiving. We believe that there was a tradition from which we are now deviating. And it’s true, we are deviating, but not from some ancient tradition.

Here’s an essay called, “There is no such thing as a traditional male breadwinner,” by Stephanie Coontz.

The author writes, polemically:

If we’re ever going to fix our problems accommodating both work and family in our lives, we have to stop thinking that the dilemmas we face today stem from the collapse of the traditional male-breadwinner family. There is no such thing as the traditional male-breadwinner family. It was a late-arriving, short-lived aberration in the history of the world, and it’s over. We need to move on.

For thousands of years, any family that needed to work understood that everyone in that family needed to work. There was no such term as “male breadwinner.” Throughout the colonial America era, wives were called “yokemates” or “deputy husbands.” When men married, they didn’t do it because they had fallen helplessly in love. They did it because they needed to expand their labor force or their land holdings, or they needed to make a political or military or business alliance, or they needed a good infusion of cash, which was why they were often more interested in the dowry than the daughter. Male breadwinner was a contradiction in terms — there was no such thing. Males were the bosses of the family workforce, and women and children were the unpaid employees.

Note that this isn’t saying the past was some happy era of natural egalitarian partnering. Coontz is just arguing that the idea of the “angel in the house,” not her term but the kind of thing she’s referencing here, is fairly recent. The angel refers to semi-elite Victorian notions of the woman’s role as the unpaid mistress of house and family. Coontz, on the other hand, focuses on the 1920s and then the 1950s, when working men could support a family on an average salary. She writes:

It wasn’t until the 1920s that a bare majority of American children came to live in a family where the husband earned the income, the wife was not working beside him in a small business or on a farm or earning income herself, and the children were either at home or in school and not working in a factory or in the fields. That family form then grew less common during the Great Depression and World War II, but it reappeared in the 1950s thanks to an unusual economic and political situation in which real wages were rising steadily and a government flush with cash was paying veterans benefits to 44% of young men starting families. This was a period when your average 30-year-old man could buy a home on 15% to 18% of his own salary, not needing his wife’s. [me emphasis] That era is gone — for good. And yet the U.S. formulated its work policies, school hours and social-support programs on the assumption that this kind of family would last forever, that there would always be someone at home to take care of the children and manage the household.

She then turns to paid family leave as one policy that needs addressing, but one could focus on others, such as childcare support.

I just appreciate the focus on untangling our perceptions of that which seems normal against actual practice across time, culture, race, sexuality, gender, etc. The things we think are “natural” for as as humans often turn out to have very specific historical contexts in which they were constructed.

2 Replies to “There never was a traditional male breadwinner”

  1. Melanie Bruce says:

    I only have to look at my own family tree to know that what Stephanie says is true. My mother even worked in the 1950s after giving birth to 2 children! Her mother worked as a cook in rich people's homes, and grannies further back were industrious farm-wives, textile workers, tobacco planters, and so on. The notion of the man as the sole breadwinner was short-lived.

    1. David Perry says:


      And a friend of mine was talking about her heritage in the 50s and said: Men would say – get married and get a wife who works, so you don't have to!

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