“We’re watching society dissolve around us, Juan, what do you think?”
“Something is going terribly wrong in American society and it’s hurting our children.”
“This is a catastrophic issue.”
You may have heard these outcries last week, if (heaven forfend) you were watching Fox News or, more likely, reading any of the ladyblogs that snickered about the hysteria coming from the four-dude panel convened by Lou Dobbs. The apocalyptic finding about which they were opining? Here’s the New York Times report on it:
"Four in 10 American households with children under age 18 now include a mother who is either the sole or primary earner for her family, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census and polling data released Wednesday."
Women supporting their own children?! Say it ain’t so!
Each male talking head was reacting to a slightly different bogeyman. Juan Williams was reacting to the fact that many such families are headed by single mothers when he said it's "tearing apart minority communities even more than white communities in this country.” Eric Erickson was worried about women wearing the pants in the family when he went off on an incoherent riff about how “science” shows that it’s “natural” for men to be dominant, even in the animal kingdom (cf: bonobos or seahorses or preying mantises or … oh, never mind). Lou Dobbs was worried about ruthless female breadwinners murdering their children (via abortion, natch). They may all have been worried about the dystopic vision implied by the title of Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men, in which men become superfluous in the workforce, as female strengths (whether cultivated by nature, nurture, or culture) become so much more prized on the job that ladies take over the workforce and then begin to bite off men’s heads after mating and begetting our young.
Oh wait, that’s the preying mantises. My bad.
The sputtering panel put me in mind of how apoplectically male legislators and judges reacted, back at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, to two shocking proposals that started sweeping through the nation, saying that these proposals would lead to the end of marriage, the family, and civilization itself. If these policies were enacted, disobedient wives would grab their children and run away from their husbands without so much as a goodbye. Children would grow up deprived and depraved, scarcely able to tell right from wrong.
What policies would undo civilization so horribly? First were the married women’s property acts, bills to allow married women to control their own money—instead of, as had been the case, turning all wages and property over to a husband. (The 1848 Seneca Falls women’s rights convention had included this as one of its chief grievances: “He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.”) Second was the idea that mothers could be the sole legal guardians of their own children. Let me quote my own book, What Is Marriage For?, here:
"A Maryland judge refused to recognize the clear instructions of his state’s [Married Women’s Property] Act, writing that it was “of doubtful propriety. … Virtually destroying the moral and social efficacy of the marriage institution. ... What incentive would there be for such a wife ever to reconcile differences with her husband, to act in submission to his wishes, and perform the many onerous duties pertaining to her sphere? Would not every wife … abandon her husband and her home?”
In a way, of course, the doomsayers were right. Once women could keep their money and their children, men had to learn to treat women decently, even equally, respecting their abilities and doing some of those “many onerous duties” themselves—or women would simply raise their families themselves.
Is that what we’re seeing in the Pew results? Pew noted that what it calls the “breadwinner moms” are made up of two very different groups: poor single mothers and comparatively well-off, college-educated married mothers. Both groups grew in the period it measured, between 1960 and 2011:
"Of all households with children younger than 18, the share of married mothers who out-earn their husbands has gone up from 4% in 1960 to 15% in 2011, nearly a fourfold increase. During the same period, the share of families led by a single mother has more than tripled (from 7% to 25%)."
That period skews the results some; an astoundingly low percentage of married women was working in 1960. Nowadays we rarely grasp what an outlier that period was, an era of particularly widespread American prosperity and income equality when one working man could support a family of four, five, or six. To get back to it, we’d need more progressive taxes, other redistributive policies, and, alas, a world with less economic competition. It’s impossible, in other words, to return to those days under our current neoliberal economic and corporate-conservative policies. And why should we want to?
So, who are those female breadwinners? Some are like my sister-in-law, highly educated and ambitious women whose professions simply bring in more income than their husbands’ (in their case, endocrinologist/developmental biologist). Some are poor single mothers who’d rather not support a man who can’t contribute to the household financially, emotionally, or by doing chores. Some are women living with men they don’t marry, seeing no need for the legal form, or believing that you only marry if you’re financially stable. Still others are women who’ve dissolved bad marriages and are better off on their own. A very small percentage are women like me, raising a child with another woman.
There are, in other words, many models of successful families. But all these breadwinner moms have three things in common. First, if they work, they’re likely happier and healthier than if they stayed home and did nothing but care for the children and the house. Here’s sociologist Stephanie Coontz writing in this weekend’s New York Times:
"… a recent multiyear study by the sociologists Adrianne Frech and Sarah Damaske found that women who worked full time following the birth of their first child had better mental and physical health at age 40 than women who had not worked for pay. Low-wage jobs with urgent and inflexible time demands do raise the risk of depression, especially among new mothers. But in less stressful low-wage jobs, mothers who work relatively long hours during the first year following childbirth experience less depression than those who cut back to fewer hours."
Second, the breadwinner moms—and their families—urgently need equal pay. The fact that two-fifths of the country’s families are being raised in female-breadwinner homes tells us that equal pay is a family issue. When women make less than their male counterparts—because they’re kept out of “good” construction or trades jobs and forced to work in retail or waitressing or because they’re simply paid less than the male managers who play the insiders’ game with different advantages—their families aren’t getting everything they need and deserve.
Third, their kids are all right. Check out this part of Coontz’s essay:
"[S]ince 1985, both mothers and fathers have increased their time with children. Employed moms spend fewer hours per week with their children than stay-at-home mothers, but they spend more time with their children than homemakers did in 1965!
And fathers nearly tripled their amount of time with children. A review of nearly 70 studies in the United States finds no significant negative effects of maternal employment on the intellectual achievement of young children. And in low-income families, children whose mothers had stable jobs had fewer behavior problems than children whose mothers experienced job instability or who did not work at all, according to another study. … A 2013 study of 75,000 Norwegian children found no behavioral problems linked to children’s time in day care."
Fox News’s Megyn Kelly is one of those female breadwinners, pregnant right now with her third child. So she ripped into her male colleagues like nobody’s business, tearing apart Erickson’s statement that “kids most likely will do best in households where they have a mom at home nurturing them while dad is out bringing home the bacon.” Kelly unleashed the stats that revealed his statement was male-fantasy crap and added, “What’s unstable about having a working mother and nurturing, loving stay-at-home father?” Penguins do it, seahorses do it; why can't we do it?
Folks, you’d think these right-wing dudes would have learned from Darrell Issa’s panel last year on contraception (er, no, on religious freedom) that getting four XYs together to discuss the XX sex is just a bad idea. Don’t do it, guys. Get yourself a female perspective. You’ll respect yourself more in the morning.
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