Why is breadwinning a guy thing?

Cristen Conger

The term "breadwinner" originated around 1821.
The term "breadwinner" originated around 1821.

The first -- and fastest -- answer to the question of why breadwinning is something male heads of households do is that it actually isn't. Or at least fewer American men are breadwinners than ever before, according to new data from the Pew Research Center that has reinvigorated old debates about women and work. Reported on in The New York Times, the Pew survey results found that women are the primary breadwinners in four in 10 American households with children under 18, the largest proportion in history. Though two-thirds of these female breadwinners are single mothers, the Pew survey has raised a number of questions about how women bringing home the most bacon affects heterosexual couples. In short, can guys handle it when women violate gender norms and earn more money than they do. Economist and behavioral scientist Richard H. Thaler cautioned that, in part thanks to the social construct of breadwinning as a man thing, women's breadwinning can have an adverse effect on marriages. But in a must-read followup, economist Philip N. Cohen pointed out some big methodological flaws in oft-cited studies suggesting that a wife's robust earning potential can cripple her marriage.

While I'll leave it to economists and pundits to badminton back and forth about whether women working and possibly chasing down hefty paychecks is good for families (hat tip to Megyn Kelly's graceful smackdown of the suggestion that working moms are bad), I was more curious to know why and when breadwinning became a male responsibility. Prior to the Industrial Revolution when men and women began occupying separate spheres, much of the income earning took place on the homestead exclusively. And while men may have been out in the fields as women worked closer to the house, their duties were as crucial to income-generating work to keeping families going (as any stay-at-home mom can attest).

In her book "Who Supports the Family: Gender and Breadwinning in Dual-Earner Marriages," Jean L. Potuchek notes how breadwinning was a nonexistent concept in those preindustrial "domestic economies." Then, as the home and workplace became two different places with industrialization, the notion of male breadwinning came about. Potuchek writes: "The idea of the 'the breadwinner' was born with this special male responsibility for providing an income. Sociologist Jessie Bernard has argued that breadwinning first emerged as a distinctive male responsibility in the United States in the 1830s and that, from then until the late 1970s, a good provider (or breadwinner) was defined as "a man whose wife did not have to enter the labor force"."

And even though women have contributed to household incomes both inside and outside the paid labor force since the word "breadwinner" originated around 1821, the cultural meaning of a husband working has long been different from that of a wife working. Potuchek likens it to the difference between the daily responsibility of parenting and the temporary, contributory act of babysitting. So in heterosexual dual-income marriages, men working is thought of more as their daily responsibility of breadwinning, whereas women's work is more likely considered supplementary and perhaps voluntary. Of course, that flies out the window in the case of single parenting, but even when it comes to single moms, they're rarely thought of as breadwinners. Single moms are called singles moms, after all, not single breadwinners.

Understanding the origin of male-as-breadwinner doesn't resolve arguments about how women working influences marriage and family dynamics, but it offers insight into why that Pew data set off so many alarm bells. The thought of 40 percent of households featuring a female breadwinner flies in the face of gender norms, as well as the bygone economic ideal of a prosperous single-earner family. So as the number of women out-earning men continues to creep upward and the number of gay-parented households rise, maybe it's time to retire "breadwinner," thus eliminating the gendered income competition and refocusing the conversation on arguably more important issues like the sky-high cost of childcare, the gender wage gap and improved resources for singe-parent households.