There Is No Such Thing as the ‘Traditional Male Breadwinner’

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If we’re ever going to fix our problems accommodating both work and family in our lives, we have to stop thinking that the dilemmas we face today stem from the collapse of the traditional male-breadwinner family. There is no such thing as the traditional male-breadwinner family. It was a late-arriving, short-lived aberration in the history of the world, and it’s over. We need to move on.

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For thousands of years, any family that needed to work understood that everyone in that family needed to work. There was no such term as “male breadwinner.” Throughout the colonial America era, wives were called “yokemates” or “deputy husbands.” When men married, they didn’t do it because they had fallen helplessly in love. They did it because they needed to expand their labor force or their land holdings, or they needed to make a political or military or business alliance, or they needed a good infusion of cash, which was why they were often more interested in the dowry than the daughter. Male breadwinner was a contradiction in terms — there was no such thing. Males were the bosses of the family workforce, and women and children were the unpaid employees.

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It wasn’t until the 1920s that a bare majority of American children came to live in a family where the husband earned the income, the wife was not working beside him in a small business or on a farm or earning income herself, and the children were either at home or in school and not working in a factory or in the fields. That family form then grew less common during the Great Depression and World War II, but it reappeared in the 1950s thanks to an unusual economic and political situation in which real wages were rising steadily and a government flush with cash was paying veterans benefits to 44% of young men starting families. This was a period when your average 30-year-old man could buy a home on 15% to 18% of his own salary, not needing his wife’s. That era is gone — for good. And yet the U.S. formulated its work policies, school hours and social-support programs on the assumption that this kind of family would last forever, that there would always be someone at home to take care of the children and manage the household.

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Today in a sense we’ve gone back to the future. We’ve gone back to the two-earner family but forward to a world where men and women now earn separate incomes and have equal legal rights. Increasingly, they want equal access to the rewards and challenges of both paid work and family. Yet many policymakers and business leaders are still stuck in that blip in time when women were only marginal members of the workforce and men were only marginal members of the family. The only major change we’ve made since the 1950s is passing the Work Family Leave Act, which offers unpaid leave that lasts only 12 weeks and is available to only half the workers who need it. Our policies are so inadequate and so far behind the rest of the world that the best claim we can make is that we’re 181st in the world; 180 other countries have better work-family policies than we do.

We have to get rid of the embarrassing disconnect between our outdated policies and the realities of our family lives, where 70% of American children grow up in homes where all the adults work outside the home. We are now 13 years into the 21st century. Isn’t it time to stop acting like it’s still the 1950s?

This article was adapted from a talk Coontz gave as part of a work-life video series produced by the Families and Work Institute.


Thanks Ms. Coontz!

I think you're doing a great service with these sorts of history lessons.  I think they encourage folks to try and be more flexible and creative in their relationships and expectations - to be less judgemental and uncompromising over what they think is "right" because they/I think it "normal".  I think it does so because it educates folks, like me, to the fact that what we consider "normal" and therefore "right" is in fact just the way that things worked out for us in our communities when we were kids.  That, in fact, lots of other arrangements can also work (i.e. be "right").

To continue to be a great country, we Americans must be flexible and thoughtful.  We must be challenged by "new" (ironically) thoughts such as Ms. Coontz explains here so well.

Thank you,



I don't know what world you live in, but women still expect a man to have greater income than themselves. When women start dating and nesting with men who make less, we'll talk, until then, this is just BS.


@YngwieFM you're tarring half the world with a brush there. I don't care if a man earns more money than me. When it come to finances I expect him to be able to cover his own expenses and expectations, and to not have any frivolous debts. It's not his job to pay for me, I'm an adult and should be able to support myself.

Dates? I dutch it. If you think it's unromantic to split the bill at the end, try you pay 1 week, I'll pay the next.


The problem isn't father leading the family in a "Leave it to Beaver" type way... but the simple fact that the world and people have changed on what they expect a average family should have.

In the 1950s if a family had a chance to buy a house-they bought one within their price range. They did this for the simple reason that they didn't have a choice. No loan officer would give them the time of day without proving their good wealth. Higher end  items were a television, a radio and a phone. Luxury items were having a car and maybe going on vacation. That was it.

Sure, it sounds rather simple today, but many demand so much more out of life then they did back then. IPhones, Internet, a nice car, vacations, a huge house full of lots of stuff and of course that perfect job. To get all of this stuff-Many have to have 2 working adults in 2 full time jobs. They place a lot of stuff on credit and save money when they can-which isn't very often and if they do decide to have a child-or children...they buy more stuff... on credit.

If you want to living like they did in the 1950s and become the "Traditional Male/Female Breadwinner" is it still possible and enjoyable. I know a few people at my work who are the only breadwinners in their family and they love it-You just have to understand the difference between a want and a need.


I'm sorry....what do you disagree with?  The historical context of working families?  That the idyllic time of the 1950's was a historical blip?  That there is no longer a "Tradiditonal Male Breadwinner"?  You are quite welcomed to disagree but if you're going to do so in a public forum and go to the trouble of posting an online comment then it's best to be a little more in-depth and specific otherwise you add absolutely nothing to the conversation and the thought process.


@qscrap I don't see why "traditionalman's" comments should need to any more in depth. It was a nice summation of the article. It is Feminist blather, nothing more. She provides no support for any of her assertions. So why should anyone agree with her? She provides no evidence. 

Since you're unsatisfied with what should be obvious, I'll elaborate:

The article fails before it even get's out of the gates. "There Is No Such Thing as the ‘Traditional Male Breadwinner’".I don't see any references provided by the author to support that claim so I looked it up.

Whoops, "There Is No Such Thing as the ‘Traditional Male Breadwinner’" is simply false, seeing as close to a quarter of US households have a 'Traditional Male Breadwinner'.

In the off chance that her definition of a 'Traditional Male Breadwinner' has to be a man living in 1950's then she's created a tautology. In which case she's merely defined it out of existence. That would make the article internally consistent, but equally (or moreso) as boring and useless. Q.E.D.