Female Breadwinners and the Power of the Market

Fox got it wrong. Freer markets have made freer women.


Are female breadwinners bad for America? Is caveman punditry bad for Republicans? These are the questions in the wake of a new study on women as family breadwinners and of a controversial Fox Business Network segment in which several male contributors deplored the trend as a sign of society's downfall. Unfortunately, the Fox panel hosted by Lou Dobbs fed straight into left-wing stereotypes of conservatives as chauvinistic males threatened by strong women. In fact, the discussion touched on some valid concerns: to the extent that the rise of female breadwinners is due to the increase in single-mother families, it does reflect worrisome developments. But other aspects of this trend are far more positive—and they bolster the libertarian/conservative argument that markets, not government, are the best path to female empowerment.

The Pew Research Center report, "Breadwinner Moms," reveals that mothers are now the primary breadwinners for 40 percent of American households with children under eighteen, a record high. Yet this figure is made up of two very different phenomena: single-mother families, currently 25 percent of households with children, and married mothers who are their families' primary earners, currently 15 percent of the total. In the Pew survey, mothers in the second group were disproportionately white and college-educated, with a median total household income of nearly $80,000 a year (about the same as for male-breadwinner families). Women in the first group were younger, disproportionately black or Hispanic, less educated than other mothers, and much poorer: their median annual family income was just $23,000. 

To some extent, the concerns voiced on the Fox panel had to do with single mothers and marriage disintegration (with passionate commentary from Juan Williams, the veteran journalist who is black and may be especially aware of the tragedy of father absence in the black community). Yet there was also rhetoric with clear and jarring overtones of hostility to female empowerment, even in married-couple families—with blogger Erick Erickson invoking the animal kingdom to argue that it's natural for males to be in "the dominant role" and that anyone who approves of women as breadwinners is "anti-science."

Leftist websites quickly picked up the segment as an example of right-wing sexism, with plenty of sarcastic jabs at Erickson's alleged expertise in biology. In fact, Erickson fully deserved the backlash—which also came from his female colleagues at Fox, notably Megyn Kelly. Invoking the animal world to justify traditional roles for women and men is an easily lampooned cliché with little scientific basis (the animal world's varied and complex sex roles are hardly a model of family values, given that in some 60 percent of primate species the young are reared by single moms). Erickson also touted some dubious statistics, claiming three quarters of Pew survey respondents said that "having mom as the primary breadwinner is bad for the kids and bad for marriage." In fact, three quarters agreed that the growing number of women working outside the home had made it harder to raise children while half agreed this trend had made it harder to have a successful marriage. But only 28 percent (down from 40 percent in 1997) agreed that it is generally better for the marriage if the husband earns more than the wife. In another Pew poll a year ago, 54 percent of men and 68 percent of women disagreed with the statement that "a pre-school child is likely to suffer if his or her mother works," and only 18 percent of men and women alike agreed that "women should return to their traditional roles in society."

Like any social shift, the evolution—or revolution—in women's roles has had its costs and challenges. We are still trying to figure out the new rules, especially for men. The course of nontraditional marriage not always does run smooth: studies find that both husbands and wives are somewhat more likely to experience psychological problems when the wife earns more. (Whether this is due to innate traits or learned cultural habit is too early to tell; the pattern is by no means universal, and undoubtedly depends to some extent on whether the spouses freely choose this arrangement or are unwillingly thrust into it.) But the changes of the last half-century have also freed women's talents and vastly expanded their choices and opportunities—and, in many cases, have also broadened men's opportunity to be involved fathers.

The market economy with its dynamic flexibility was key to those changes. Anti-discrimination legislation undoubtedly played a role in opening more doors to women; but one rarely recognized fact is that systematic sex discrimination in the workplace had also been partly the work of government. Historian Allan Carlson, a strong social conservative, has noted that the sole-breadwinner family of the 1950s was enabled by the efforts of progressive reformers and government-backed labor unions to institutionalize the idea that the male head of household should be paid enough to support a stay-at-home wife and children. The "family wage" rested on built-in, intentional discrimination against women; its decline, along with the loss of union power, partly accounts for the decline of high-paying traditionally male jobs where pay had been artificially inflated. This is a fact liberals fail to understand when they lament that the narrowing of the gender gap in pay is due partly to the drop in male earnings.

The Pew study's findings on female breadwinners attest to the power of the market and to its elastic capacity to respond to changing circumstances. That is something conservatives should celebrate—and appreciate as a rebuttal to the left's women-as-victims rhetoric. 

And most conservatives do, despite attempts to tar them with the sexist brush. The day after the Lou Dobbs panels, Media Matters, the left-wing watchdog group, claimed that other Fox News hosts on the widely watched discussion show, The Five, had backed Erickson and agreed that the rise in female breadwinners was linked to society's downfall. But that was pure spin: the negative commentary on The Five had to do with single motherhood. At the end, after acknowledging the problem of family breakdown, co-host Andrea Tantaros noted that "every family that's not a single-mother family has to do what's best for them." What better message—for women, men, and families alike?

This article originally appeared on Real Clear Politics.