Breadwinner Feminism

By Christine Riddiough

Meet Mrs. Jones, my neighbor up the block. She’s 75 and lives with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Then there’s my friend Ellen who’s a single mother. Her son is an adult now, but while he was growing up she had to juggle several jobs and childcare. And there’s my wife and I – we’ve been together for 30 years – and married for almost one year.

Each of these families has one thing in common – they’re all headed by women. And that’s not that unusual. The American family is no longer like 1950s TV shows “Father Knows Best” or “Leave It To Beaver.” Nor is it much like the families of “Family Ties,” “Boy Meets World” or “Everybody Loves Raymond” – shows from the ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s. The families with a working father, stay-at-home mother and 2.5 children are a rarity these days. On May 29, the Pew Research Center released a report showing that:

“A record 40 percent of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family. . . .  The share was just 11 percent in 1960.”[1]

Then on July 2, a second report from the Pew Research Center found that:

“A record 8 percent of households with minor children in the United States are headed by a single father, up from just over one percent in 1960. . . .”[2]

And on June 26, the Supreme Court ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional.[3]

So why, when clearly the family is very different from what it was 60 years ago, is American politics driven by the “Father Knows Best” vision of the family?

It got me to thinking about the book All in the Family by Robert O. Self, which both Bill Barclay and I have referenced in previous posts. Self describes

The white middle-class nuclear family headed by a patriotic and heterosexual male . . .  The idea of that family conveyed such power it is best thought of as a national mythology. Thus who controlled that mythology mattered. In the 1960s, New Frontier and Great Society liberals . . . crafted social and economic policies they believed would make this idealized nuclear family, which had been the object of liberal concern since the New Deal, attainable for more Americans than ever before. They hoped to assist families economically, and I call their collective efforts “breadwinner liberalism.”[4]

He then notes

By 2004, the nuclear family was a conservative emblem, . . . conservatives endeavored to defend families from what they cast as moral threats. They sought to protect idealized families from moral harm, and I call their collective efforts “breadwinner conservatism.”[5]

“Breadwinner conservatism,” as practiced by the House of Representatives, has resulted in deletion of the food stamp program from the farm bill, doubling of interest rates for college loans, and increasing restrictions on abortion. Unfortunately, in the decades since the Reagan revolution started us on this path, liberals and progressives have had little response beyond either “bring back the New Deal/Great Society” or “let’s compromise” (resulting in things like the “welfare reform” of the Clinton administration).

Is this really what we need, a return to breadwinner liberalism? Even 50 years ago it was inadequate. Remember, the 1965 Moynihan report argued that black matriarchal culture undercut the role of black men. It was one of the bases on which the War on Poverty was built. But its assumption that, to eradicate poverty, programs should strengthen the role of male breadwinners at the expense of women is both racist and sexist. Important as were the gains made by liberal programs such as the War on Poverty, their failures are also evident.

Yet while a return to breadwinner liberalism will not fix what ails us, neither will compromise with the already outrageous breadwinner conservatism of the Right. No, what we need now is a new approach – what I call “breadwinner feminism.”

Breadwinner feminism is a view of the world that recognizes the many different families in our society and the variety of roles played by both women and men. Breadwinner feminism is an approach that puts women forward – forward in policy, forward in how we discuss those policies, forward in the images we display of those policies. But breadwinner feminism is more than that. It’s a recognition that by putting women forward, we’re also addressing the needs of those men who are single fathers. And we understand that the work generally done by women and taken for granted – work like taking care of children or elderly parents – is important both for those individuals and for society as a whole. It’s a recognition that granting a right is not meaningful unless people have the means to take advantage of that right, so that the right to choose an abortion, for example, goes hand-in-hand with the ability to exercise that right.

How often has the Democratic Party or the AFL-CIO or any one of the many liberal/progressive think tanks and organizations simply addressed the needs of women by adding an equal rights plank into their platform, an equal pay line to their agenda? What image does the phrase “worker” invoke – is it the traditional man in a hard hat? We have to envision a Latina secretary, a white waitress. And what about “overburdened student” – a young man with mountains of debt or a middle-aged African American woman going back to school so she can better support her family?

Breadwinner feminism starts with the recognition that women are almost half the workforce, but earn only 77 percent of what men do. The pay gap for African-American women and Latinas is even greater. Although women outnumber men in college enrollment,[6] and girls graduate from high school at a higher rates than boys,[7] women still earn less than men and tend to have jobs that pay less than men. For example, while women outnumber men in professional positions, the positions they hold are more likely to be in lower-paying education and health care fields, while male professionals tend to be in higher-paying computer and engineering positions.[8] And, of course, many women remain in pink-collar jobs. For example, servers (such as waitresses) are 71 percent female; they rely on tips for income and thus often have to also rely on food stamps.[9]

Breadwinner feminism recognizes that equal pay is only the starting point. Affirmative action is another essential plank in this platform. And job equality requires measures to stop sexual harassment on the job and in any public space. Fighting violence against women is a requirement, as is access to all public spaces.

But breadwinner feminism also acknowledges that family life can’t be separated from work life. Child care, elder care, family and medical leave are all essential. And, while Obamacare is a step forward, real equality and reproductive justice means that access to reproductive services shouldn’t depend on the ability to pay.

Some of us might say that breadwinner feminism is really socialist feminism, but it’s socialist feminism that is more than just an adjunct to our world view, it is our world view, one with women and “women’s work” at the center.

Christine.jpgChristine Riddiough is an honorary vice-chair of DSA.




Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership.

[5] Ibid.