Men Want to Be Breadwinners–But So Do Women!

Picture 5.jpgHere’s some great news.  The vast majority of young people–about 80 percent of women and 70 percent of men across all races, classes and family backgrounds–desire an egalitarian marriage in which both partners share breadwinning, housekeeping and child rearing.  The data come from Kathleen Gerson‘s fabulous 2010 book, The Unfinished Revolution.

In practice, however, egalitarian relationships are difficult to establish.  Both work and family are “greedy institutions,” ones that take up lots of time and energy.  Many couples find that, once children arrive, it’s impossible for both to do both with equal gusto.

With this in mind, Gerson asked her respondents what type of family they would like if, for whatever reason, they couldn’t sustain an equal partnership.  She discovered that, while men’s and women’s ideals are very similar, their fallback positions deviate dramatically.

Men’s most common fallback position is to establish a neotraditional division of labor: 70 percent hope to convince their wives to de-prioritize their careers and focus on homemaking and raising children.  Women?  Faced with a husband who wants them to be a housewife or work part-time, almost three-quarters say they would choose divorce and raise their kids alone.  In fact, despite men’s insistence on being breadwinners, women are more likely than men to say they value success in a high-paying career.

Look at this absolutely stunning data (matching ideals on the left; clashing fallback positions on the right):

One of Gerson’s interviewees, Matthew, exemplifies the egalitarian willing to fallback on a neotraditional family form:

If I could have the ideal world, I’d like to have a partner who’s making as much as I am—someone who’s ambitious and likes to achieve.  [But] if it can’t be equal, I would be the breadwinner and be there for helping with homework at night.

And this is what women think of that:

My mother’s such a leftover from the ’50s and did everything for my father. I’m not planning to fall into that trap. I’m really not willing to take that from any guy at all.

Alas, what appears to be a happy convergence between men’s and women’s ideals–both are egalitarians–can turn into an intractable situation: a man who won’t give up his role as the breadwinner and a woman who would rather do anything than be a housewife.

Crossposted from Sociological Images

Photo courtesy of henryleemartin via Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. Could we change “housewife” to “homemaker”? I realize a really bad ABC TV show made that a popular term in the previous decade but I also realize that, as feminists, we worked to change the term to
    homemaker. Thank you.

  2. As a divorcee with a child I can tell you this much it’s not easy, and often you rely on someone else anyway. You often have to make hard decisions which often, to be frank, suck! It’s not fun it’s not glamorous and unless you make over $100k a year you can’t afford the help you do need. So in short if you have a man you love and a career you enjoy but want kids is it really that big of a deal to do a little give and take. Relationships aren’t toilet paper people you can’t just throw them away! Kids need parents, involved patents. I’m not saying someone has to stay home to accomplish that but you both need to be involved.

    • That’s why I believe we need free/cheap day care…take a billion or two away from the military budget or something else that’s stupid or gets too much money and spend it on subsidised or free child care. There are SWM’s that enjoy life with kids and no partner already, so your experience isn’t the only one, but I still believe there should be free child care because then more people can work so they can be financially independent (necessary for having control over your life) and have the career they want instead of giving up their ambitions. I remember at school, all the girls in my class wanted careers and looked forward to studying for them; I think it would be sad if they had to give their dreams up.

      And if men think it’s so great for one person to stay at home, why don’t THEY do it instead of thinking their wife should? There are many SAHD’s so they would be in good company, I’ve seen online communities for those who can’t find any househusband-buddies in their area.

      • “And if men think it’s so great for one person to stay at home, why don’t THEY do it instead of thinking their wife should?”

        The question should be, how many women would be fine with having a husband who is not the breadwinner?

    • Tiffany, I think you’re right about the give and take. I married at 36, had a child in the first year of our marriage, and proceeded to work part time for the next 15 years, until last summer when I again began working full time. There have been tradeoffs, and my husband is the primary income earner in our family, but by the time I became a mother I had a well established career and a big network, so part time work has been OK – in my professional sphere, slower promotions, but still good opportunities. I’ve enjoyed time with my daughter as well as time in the workplace, and I’m looking forward to the next phase of my work life as my daughter launches. None of this would have been possible without give and take – my husband has come home early when I’ve travelled for work, stayed home with our daughter when she was sick, taken her to work with him when she had a day off and I needed to work. We made decisions together that have worked for our family. In a perfect world all would be egalitarian, but this isn’t a perfect world. Families need to make decisions that fit their own needs and desires.

    • Nancy Roberts says:

      I agree!

  3. “Relationships aren’t toilet paper people you can’t just throw them away!” As another divorcee with two children, I think it is hard work no matter how you go about it. The give and take can also be a man dropping to part-time. Women placing judgement on other women for the choices they make that are particular to their lives is what is holding us back. The unknown in the article is how these discussions are presented and handled in the home. As a single mom, it is really hard to work full time, care for children 90% of the time and meet all our needs financially as well as emotionally. It is not nearly as hard as living with a man, with a neotraditional perspective who disregards you, disrespects you, refuses you to have a voice or a say in family finances and bullies their position onto the family through insults and abusive behaviour. It is WAY easier, better, healthier to live as a single parent then that kind of life. My children are better for it. There is an assumption that these decisions are made for shallow reasons, this is not just. I have seen women who sacrificed their lives for their family, working part-time or staying at home, not being financially independent and they suffer for it in their elder years. There is more to this argument than a gal wanting a career more than relationship.

    • Nancy Roberts says:

      Yes, each situation is different, and we shouldn’t judge others for the decisions they make in this area.

  4. The vast majority of couples in the US are seeking to establish a form of gender equity within their families after the birth. This significant trend is evident in the results of two waves of the National Survey of Families and Households cited by Gayle Kaufman, 2000. Do gender role attitudes matter? Family formation and dissolution among traditional and egalitarian men and women. Journal of Family Issues 21 (1): 128-144.

    Seventy-six per cent of women held an egalitarian attitude to family formation.

    See also Martha Fineman’s works: The Neutered Mother, The Autonomy Myth

    Joan G

  5. This was an interesting piece. It sounds like the blogger discovered a possible reason for all the divorce in America.

    • Yep. It’s time to admit that a lot of divorces happen because she leans towards equality while he is attached to male dominance.

      • 1) Number one reason for divorce – Financial issues
        2) Women initiate over 70% of divorces.

        Most women don’t want an egalitarian relationship when it comes to finances. Hypergamy is still running the show. Women generally desire mates that have incomes larger than their own, even if by a little. Never have I attended a wedding in which the bride was earning more than the groom. I did attend one, but he was in his final year of medical school and was unemployed; she was working at a florist, and was in school for elem ed. She knew by marrying him, there would be a good chance she would be a doctor’s wife. Not exactly income parity. Even census data indicates that most women are not earning more than their husbands. And the women that do earn more usually became the breadwinner by default when their husbands became unemployed due to the recession, which has hit men harder than women.

  6. I have female friends who married men with the agreement that they would be equal partners in the child rearing and homemaking. But now that they have children, the man has left them with more of that work. The men expect the women to go along with the inequality. And right, would you rather have some help or none at all?

    Would a legal document help? An agreement prior to marriage that requires men to fulfill their side of the bargain.

    • A legal document may help but an education movement would be better. Feminists need to create egalitarian relationship organizations that challenge the dating advice and marriage counseling industry and show us how to have fair relationships. They could use the YouTube, TV shows, documentaries, movies . . . yes, I know it would be expensive, but when there’s a will, there’s a way.

      Feminist social scientists have brilliantly analyzed marriage and family issues, especially after the 60’s, when the women’s liberation movement came up with the great axiom, the personal is political.

      But it’s time to stop analyzing and start organizing. It’s not enough to campaign for family and medical leave laws, family-friendly workplaces and better child care. We need to show people how to work out these “personal is political” issues. We need to use Public Service Announcements, YouTube videos, plays, sitcoms, movies, documentaries to give a good picture of what fair relationships look like.

    • “I have female friends who married men with the agreement that they would be equal partners in the child rearing and homemaking.”

      How do you measure housework output? You can’t. Could it possibly be that women are more critical when men do housework? I know plenty of working men who tell me their stay-at-home wives can’t cook, and rarely clean. Just puts a few toys away and does laundry once a week.

      My father rarely did housework. Yet he did all of the home and auto repairs; he did all of the yard maintenence; he managed the finances; did taxes, etc. He saved lord knows how many thousands of dollars over the years.

  7. In 2010 women would rather divorce than be homemaker & men’s fallback position was breadwinner.How things have changed! A recent 2012 study showed that women breadwinners have increased by 10% and the figures on stay home dads are the highest since figures began. whether this is temporary remains to be seen, but things are changing
    Jenny Garrett

    • This is overstated. Yes, the number of stay-at-home dads has doubled over the past decade, but they make up a whopping 3.4% of the total of stay-at-home parents. Women breadwinners, too, are fairly rare (less than 30% of the overall pie, if I’m not mistaken).

      • You are correct. The main reason the number of stay-at-home dads has risen is because the recession has impacted more men than women when it comes to unemployment. A working man marries a working women (who earns less than him); he loses his job due to the recession, and she becomes the breadwinner by default. The stats are misleading because the make some people think that women are becoming more accepting of househusbands. I’d wager it’s the opposite. Women generally still want a man who earns more. Feminism couldn’t destroy hypergamy.

  8. Please, let’s stop using euphemisms like traditional and neo-traditional. We should be saying that most men’s fallback position is patriarchy or male dominance.

    This article is so typical of feminist studies on marriage and family issues. It has a lot of good analysis (even through it uses euphemisms like traditional) but no plan of action.

    Feminists need to start organizations that promote egalitarian relationships. They need to show people what a fair marriage looks like. They need to use the You Tube, they need to engage feminist screenwriters and directors to create sitcoms, plays and movies about building fair relationships and so on. In particular, they need to constantly challenge the dating advice industry and many marriage counselors for giving advice that keeps woman down and lets men off the hook.

    Please, let’s put a moratorium on studies about the chore wars and how male and female fallback positions differ on equality. Let’s get out of the paralysis of analysis and build an egalitarian relationships movement.

  9. It took social laws and education in Sweden recently. The men did not take paternity leave. Then they had to. When everyone did it, it lost the stigma, and men discovered that they enjoyed time with their children. So, yes, it takes laws and education both.
    I have been in the women’s movement and an educator since the ’60s, and I still think this is the biggest obstacle for women to lead full lives. With all the changes, we still have to juggle family and work. Yes, we need to organize and get the laws that allow many women in Europe to be productive members of society, and we need to educate both men and women (popular culture is a big problem here) in feminist values that explain what “choice” really means. It is not a “choice” for even privileged women to stay home when men make more money and there is no good child care. And working-class women have never had any choice.

  10. As I have said before, I want a moratorium on studies of “who does what” in the household. Instead, I want studies that cover these areas . . .

    How many parents teach their sons to do an equal amount of housework? How many of them give higher allowances to their sons?
    What are marriage preparation groups doing to teach couples how to share housework and childcare equally? What is Marriage Encounter doing about the chore wars?
    How are dating advice gurus perpetuating the chore wars, not to mention male-dominated gender norms?
    How are marriage counselors perpetuating the chore wars? And which marriage counselors are challenging men to take equal responsibility?
    How many people speak out when they’re at a dinner party and they see the woman doing all the work while her husband just entertains guests? And what do they do when the husband suddenly says with great enthusiasm, “I’ll wash the dishes” and his wife looks so surprised?
    How many people speak out when someone says, “Men should help out with housework?”
    How many people speak out when a marriage counselor says men should do housework so that they’ll get more sex?

    It takes a village to get husbands to take equal responsibility for housework and childcare. For the past 40 years, the culture has put all the responsibility on the woman to get her husband to “do his share.” It’s time for feminists to get back to their “personal is political” roots and challenge the whole culture.

  11. I am a working mother. My husband has agreed to be a stay at home dad while I put myself through grad school. My level of education makes it clear that I will always be the “bread winner” in the family, although he may go back to work when I graduate and start a new job this year. I appreciate that he has given up working to take care of my daughter, but it causes financial problems. He doesn’t like not having financial freedom and doesn’t seem to understand that the shift in his financial situation has more to do with he fact that we have a child to raise and not a huge income than with he fact that he is not working. With his earning potential he would hardly be able to make enough to cover daycare! And guess who would end up having to pick my daughter up and drop her off? Me! Even though my husband stays home, and cooks most of time, if i am home, he is off duty. So in a sense, he’s a part time dad and I’m a full time mom. I work to support my family and when I’m home, taking care of my family is 95% my responsibility. I do all the laundry, most of the grocery shopping, and all the stressing about household finances. I’m tired but I just don’t know how to convince my husband to do more, when it feels like he is ready sacrificing so much. In other words, I don’t want a complete role reversal so that my husband is in the same position as a 50’s housewife (wouldn’t that financial freedom be nice, when a household could survive with just one worker) because I know how hard it is.
    Balance seems impossible.

  12. Schneider says:

    What is wrong with being a stay-at-home mom? My husband works his ass off so I can raise our kids. We both have college educations. We both work very hard in our own ways. I consider THAT being equal. My husband and I are equal because no matter what your job, be it a SAHM or outside the home, that you both work your ass off no matter what it is!

  13. Adam Bradshaw says:

    I have doubts that most young people today – that is 80 % of women and 70% of men desire egalitarian marriage. While this is idealistic, when reality sets in (career demands, raising children, managing growing family), one has to be the “bigger person,” so to speak in specific aspects of the relationship. Hence, I agree egalitarian marriage is difficult to establish, especially where earnings and incomes are concerned. Despite Gerson’s pronouncements, there are also studies that show both men and women still expect men to have the greater responsibility in providing financially for the family, though this does not prohibit women from optimizing their earning potentials. Just my thoughts. Great post by the way. I’ve come across some insights on this issue in this article.

  14. It seems to me that even in the 21st century, things haven’t changed that much when it comes to men’s expectations of what women “should” be doing as their wives. According to the article (if I’m reading it correctly), a majority of men lean back to the “traditional” — meaning NONequal or patriarchal — form of marriage where the men do all the breadwinning and women do most or all of the housework and the less pleasant tasks of child raising.

    Given the choice between the patriarchal form of marriage (which I left) and staying single (which I am now), I’m opting for the second choice. I’m wondering if there have been any studies done on why more women are either delying marriage or choosing to remain single and never marry. Susan B. Anthony stated her reason for not marrying very well in an 1896 interview: “I never felt I could give up my life of freedom to be a man’s housekeeper.” I certainly concur with that.

  15. Shahin Larhnimi says:

    I really believe in equal division between a male and a female. “about 80 percent of women and 70 percent of men across all races, classes and family backgrounds–desire an egalitarian.” I definitely feel like I belong to the 80%, I would rather have me and my partner to make equal wages rather than him providing for me, even though most men have the belief that they are the breadwinner. Housekeeping and child rearing is also something that should be done by both as well. I do also value my career as most men today and I think that a lot of women have the same mindset as me. To prioritize their success and then focus on family later on.

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