The apocalypse!

The New York Times joins the Female Breadwinner Apocalypse freak-out

The apocalypse!

This is what Wikipedia says the apocalypse will look like. Where are all the Mean Feminist Mommies?

Did you think only Fox News talking heads were freaking out about the rise of female breadwinners and the apocalypse their arrival foretells? Fear not! Lou Dobbs and his team of misogynists have plenty of company–including, as of this weekend, the New York Times. In the wake of last week’s Pew announcement that women are now the primary earners for nearly half of American families with children, yesterday’s paper included an essay from Richard Thaler, who teaches at the University of Chicago’s business school. He writes:

[Recent] developments should encourage aspiring young women to believe that social norms are changing, and that barriers to success are dropping. But a new study reveals that women’s gains on the economic front may be contributing to a decline in the formation and stability of marriages

The paper’s findings support the anecdotal complaints of many highly educated, high-earning women who say they can’t find suitable husbands. And as women continue to outperform men in school, these problems are likely to grow.

To Thaler’s credit, he recognizes the role that outdated, misogynistic expectations play in this supposed conflict, suggesting that “problems arising from tradition-bound notions of gender identity will keep taking a toll on our economy and our families” until men get comfortable with wives who make more money than they do. However, despite this acknowledgement, Thaler’s big proposal is not a radical challenge to our collective sexism: he seems to hope certain gender roles will dissolve naturally but doesn’t consider the possibility that we could speed the process. Rather, Thaler pushes for the expansion of part-time, at-home work “to hire the millions of talented but underemployed mothers in our economy.”

I absolutely support flexible work schedules that allow both moms and dads to care for kids while making a living. That argument, though, has no place in a discussion about how sexist notions of the “male provider” hurt families. There are many reasons to support flexible work schedules, but preserving male egos by offering women less ambitious paths isn’t one of them. Part-time work shouldn’t be a strategy for wives to assuage their husbands’ insecurities: We need to demolish gendered expectations, not accommodate them. Designing policy to ensure the comfort of misogynists only further entrenches the same fixed roles on which Thaler blames this alleged problem.

Besides, Thaler cites a deeply flawed paper to establish a connection between women’s professional success and unhappy marriages. Even before yesterday’s essay was published, one of my favorite academic bloggers, Philip Cohen, had thoroughly discredited the researchers’ conclusions. As he points out, the data is old, the methodology is dubious, and many have previously exposed similar mistakes in nearly identical studies.

Given the empirical weakness of the Feminist Breadwinner Apocalypse theory, it’s curious that reputable professors and publications are so eager to claim a connection between wives making bank and problems at home. Thaler might be worried about financially independent women’s marriages, but right now I’m more concerned by the popular assumption that they must be failing.

New Haven, CT

Alexandra Brodsky is an editor at, student at Yale Law School, and founding co-director of Know Your IX, a national legal education campaign against campus gender-based violence. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, and NPR. Through Know Your IX, she has organized with students across the country to build campuses free from discrimination and violence, developed federal policy on Title IX enforcement, and has testified at the Senate. At Yale Law, Alexandra focuses on antidiscrimination law and is a member of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic. Alexandra is committed to developing and strengthening responses to gender-based violence outside the criminal justice system through writing, organizing, and the law. Keep an eye out for The Feminist Utopia Project, co-edited by Alexandra and forthcoming from the Feminist Press (2015).

Alexandra Brodsky is an editor at, student at Yale Law School, and founding co-director of Know Your IX.

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  • honeybee

    Why do you say anecdotal when there have been plenty of studies showing increased divorce rates and lower happiness levels for couples where the primary breadwinner is a woman?

    Most show it’s women that have a harder time with it – e.g., seeing their partner as less of a man or not contributing enough. We’ve discussed these on this site before so I’m surprised at the omission.

    As to the rest, I’m not clear on how we can speed the process. Radical changes are happening to our society and notions of gender and will take time for everyone to adapt to this new world. I would say several generations since it will mainly be young people who are raised in this new world that do not question it or fear it. It’s the same with gay marriage and other issues – at this point alot of it waiting for the older generation to die off before we can truly be free of their angst.

    • John

      “I’m not clear on how we can speed the process.”

      Do we want to speed it? Yes, men and women not caring who earns more in a relationship as long as they have enough income to raise a family is good, but men not going to college is a problem and even more disturbing men are graduating at rates significantly lower than women. Women earning more is a good thing. Men making less not good. This may very well signal problems. Maybe not the problems these guys are complaining of.

    • alararogers

      The point was that these studies are based on old data. So actually you can’t really say that there are “plenty of studies showing” a present tense effect. You need 2010 data and later, not data from the late 1980’s/early 1990’s, to describe an effect that is currently true.

      I’m also not sure how you could tell the difference between “my husband doesn’t make enough money so I feel he is less of a man” and “my husband doesn’t make enough money so he feels depressed and angry and takes it out on me”, or “my husband doesn’t make as much money as I do and yet expects me to do all the chores”, or “my husband is an asshole so I have to work hard and make more money so I can afford to leave this marriage”. We’ve seen studies that indicate that men who are unemployed or underemployed do *not* step up their housework game, but in fact do less housework — possibly the whole psychological “I feel like less of a man and housework would further emasculate me” — and we’ve seen studies that show that men who are unemployed or underemployed commit more domestic violence. To me, it seems like, as long as men believe that their self worth is tied to making money, they will be prone to depression when they are unemployed or underemployed, and men consistently react to depression with higher rates of alcoholism and violence than women do… and both men and women react to depression by becoming less proactive, less willing and able to work around the house, less engaged with children.

      Since men make more money than women when fully employed, most of the time, the most likely explanation for women making more money than their husbands is usually underemployment or unemployment by the husband. This isn’t a case where men married high-performing career women and then got upset that she made more, or women married guys with low income prospects and then got upset that he made less; this is a case where there was likely an existing dynamic with an employed husband who probably made as much or more than his wife, and when his employment shifted and he made less, he didn’t react to this as a woman would, by trying to increase his helpfulness around the house in order to balance out bringing in less money; he reacted irrationally and emotionally, in a way that is understandable, that we can sympathize with, but that still put a much bigger burden on his wife at a point where she’s already carrying the weight of the family finances (which were probably calibrated to include his portion.) So now he is depressed and possibly angry, and she feels betrayed and like he’s worthless because not only can’t he pull his financial weight anymore, but he’s *not* being more helpful in other ways and he’s dragging her down with his emotional problems.

      This is going to be very hard to identify in a study. You would actually have to be looking for the problem to construct a study to find it, and our gut reaction is “men don’t like women making more money/women don’t like men making less money”, so we don’t make studies to get into the guts of *why*. But I suspect that if you could separate out couples where the man *always* made less money — perhaps he is a schoolteacher or social worker and she is an accountant or a manager or something — you would see that any such effects on marital satisfaction are probably happening only to couples where the man used to make more money and now he doesn’t.

      • honeybee

        Not true at all (in terms of age of studies). There are studies from 2013 that show this – e.g., the recent Chicago study that feministing report on showing 40% of households with children have a female primary breadwinner also showed these same kind of results.

        Hanna Rosin, in her book ‘The End of Men’, which has been discussed and reviewed on this site and is a very recent book, also goes into depth on this phenominum and also shows the impact it can have and what men and women are doing about it.

      • honeybee

        Oh and some of the research does get into what you said – i.e., the woman has always made more – because some look at younger couples and women coming out of college, etc.

        I agree causes for things can be hard to pinpoint and some studies don’t make the distinction but it’s wrong to assume that no one has analyzed it from these angles before. They have.

  • John

    “The paper’s findings support the anecdotal complaints of many highly educated, high-earning women who say they can’t find suitable husbands.”

    It’s not that women can’t find husbands. It’s that women can’t find “suitable” husbands. It seems to suggest that it is the women rejecting lower income men rather than men rejecting higher income women. How is this misogyny?

    • Franzia Kafka

      The implied “antidote” to women’s “inability to find a ‘suitable’ husband” is a 1950s style structure where women did not achieve outside the home or work as much as men – for women to go back to making less or to working part-time. Men are not asked to step up and adjust *their* behavior to increase the happiness in their marriages. The most responsibility Thaler gives men is to “accept the fact that hard-working girls may well turn into highly paid women” – this is so obvious as to be laughable. Thaler also accepts as a “stubbornly persistent norm” the fact that women assume more than half the responsibility for raising children. Really? I bet if men would start assuming half the responsibility for raising children, then women assuming more than half the responsibility for raising children would no longer be a norm. Maybe men need to step up and get the higher educations that they’re capable of getting instead of assuming (like many men I know – speaking of anecdotes) that they will be able to surf by and get a good-paying job with a high school diploma because they’re men. Maybe they need to step up and do the housekeeping. Maybe these marriages would be happier.

      How’s that for misogyny.

  • Franzia Kafka

    While I find the fact that “women are now the primary earners for nearly half of American families with children” fine and well from a liberal-feminist standpoint of “women should have access to all the same opportunities as men,” I can’t help but wonder if this signals bad news for families’ wages and economic health. We all know that women make considerably less on average than men. Women’s earnings in relation to men’s have slipped this past year instead of improved. If more women are now making more than their male partners in families with children, this indicates a continuing wage decline – in addition to the one that most middle- and working-class people have experienced over the past several decades.

    I also can’t help but wonder if some employers make conscious decisions to hire women in order to pay them less. Lest that sound conspiratorial, businesses already take advantage of the immigrant-labor market to underpay, as well as intentionally replace older with younger workers, take advantage of interns’ free labor, primarily staff overseas sweatshops with women because the wages are cheaper, etc. I would be curious to know if any U.S. studies have been done on this.