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The Rise & Fall of the Male Breadwinner

The rise of working motherhood is one of the most important social changes of the twentieth century. 150 years ago, married women’s employment was uncommon and socially stigmatised in Britain. Now, it is widespread, socially expected that women work and have children. Yet social change is notably asymmetrical, women have encroached into previously male-dominated domains, yet they still undertake the lion’s share of care work.

Fortunately, there are 3 new books on this very subject: Emma Griffin’s Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy; Helen McCarthy’s Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood; and Caitlyn Collins’ Making Motherhood Work.


Your options: read this blog or watch the video.


Before the Industrial Revolution, men and women were economically interdependent, working together in a shared enterprise at home, relying upon each other. Men needed women, to survive.

But that changed with the Industrial Revolution.


Real wages increased after 1830. But those wages were monopolised by men.


And that radically changed family relations - as Emma Griffin shows by drawing on over 600 autobiographies, by working class men and women born between 1830 and 1903.

So what caused the male breadwinner model? Did women not want to work, due to the cult of domesticity, or was it due to low demand? Here I wasn’t really sure. Here’s where my priors were rocked. As Griffin shows, many teenage girls desperately wanted to work, to have a little economic autonomy and join the public sphere. Factory work was horrific, but teenage girls still sought it, as preferable to the relentless drudgery of care work, which confined them to the home, and provided no rewards. The autobiographies reveal that girls wanted paid work. Yet their earnings were so low and the volume of housework so large that their parents didn’t consider it worthwhile. So girls were often saddled with childcare and scrubbing, while their brothers were out, earning their own money, and being valued as financial contributors.

Due to sex discrimination in the labour marked, women needed to marry to survive. But that did not guarantee their economic security, women were dependent on men’s good graces, but men were distinctly unreliable. Rising male wages did not lift all boats. Moreover, they amplified patriarchy, endowing men with pride, status, and authority.

It’s a glorious read. The autobiographies reveal how men and women perceived and experienced the world, their concerns and constraints, what they took for granted, or challenged. And Griffin highlights heterogeneity amongst individuals, not all men were unreliable.

But I have two lingering questions. First, what about regional economic geography? The male breadwinner model was not nationwide. As Xesheng You shows in a recent Economic History Review, married women’s employment responded to demand. In cotton areas like Lancashire, demand was high, and married women’s employment was high, regardless of male wages and their domestic duties. By contrast, in pit villages, women were indeed dependent on men. How did these different places shape social relationships? Did women’s paid work in Lancashire and economic interdependence lessen patriarchal dominance in those communities? Or were women working for pay without recognition? My broader point here is that individuals develop their aspirations and expectations through observing the communities around them. And there was radical heterogeneity across Britain. So besides looking at individual characteristics, we also need to compare different places. How did living in a community with a higher rate of female employment shape family life?

I also wonder, even if women’s wages were relatively low, why didn’t families value that additional income? Griffin may reply that the volume of housework was huge, so the opportunity cost was low. But I’m not so sure. In other parts of the world, in really patriarchal societies, with marked gender pay gaps, and huge volumes of housework, women’s employment rose with industrialisation - Tsarist Russia, Japan’s silk mills, Korea, and Taiwan. What was different about Europe, such that women’s labour supply did not rise with labour market opportunities? I am curious!

How did we escape from the male breadwinner model?


Back in 1900, mothers’ work was socially stigmatised, they were jeopardising their children’s health and development. It also signalled men’s failure to provide for their families. Given this stigma, married women’s labour supply was weakly responsive to demand.

Yet today, working motherhood is socially accepted. So what changed over the twentieth century? That’s the core question of ‘Double Lives’ by Helen McCarthy. As a historian, she illustrates a hundred years of social change with anecdotes about individual lives and public discourses.

The big step change was post-war economic boom, growth in services, the welfare state (with rising demand for teachers and nurses), and consumerism. Given labour shortages, employers waived earlier marriage bars and eagerly recruited more women. Women’s relative wages increased, and so did social acceptance. As economic returns increased, women increasingly pursued education and careers - to become doctors, lawyers, and managers. An additional factor, downplayed by McCarthy, was of course the rise of part-time employment.

I would also welcome more attention to how and why British mothers’ identities changed over time. In the early and mid-twentieth century, women’s labour market participation was very sensitive to economic conditions: whether the wages they could earn were high or low, what their husband’s earnings were like. And there was a satisfaction point — if the husband earned enough the wife might not work at all. But in the late 20th century, that all changed — women tend to work regardless of economic conditions.

Let me rephrase that for economists, women’s own labour elasticity halved between 1980 and 2000 (at least in the USA, as shown by economists Blau and Kahn). Women’s work also became less responsive to their husbands’ wages and critical to their own identities (as Goldin argues in the Quiet Revolution). And I wonder what happened?

Because this trend is not inevitable. McCarthy treats rates of female employment and social acceptance as necessarily conjoined, but the connection is not automatic. Stephan Klasen (in the latest issue of World Development) shows that notwithstanding economic growth, female employment and social acceptance have actually stagnated in many parts of the world. Importantly, if work is not key to women’s identities, or broadly accepted, then it may recede as men’s wages rise. Chinese women’s employment shot up under communism, but fell as families got richer in the 2000s. Japan is another fascinating example. Like Europe and the USA, it experienced a post-war economic boom, consumerism, and welfare state, but the male bread winner model persists. What was different? Taking a more globally comparative perspective could help us realise additional characteristics in Europe.

So McCarthy’s book also stresses a challenge: working mothers’ struggle to do it all, paid work and care-giving. Feminist activism in the 1970s radically changed the discourse, women increasingly recognised that their problems were collective and structural.

But the difficulty of working motherhood persists. As a consequence, women predominate in low status, poorly paid, flexible employment.

Now, some say this just reflects women’s inherent preferences? (to paraphrase Catherine Hakim). To interrogate this claim, Caitlyn Collins undertook comparative qualitative research in Sweden, Germany, the UK, and USA. She examined how government policy shapes contemporary families’ expectations and behaviour. Her work is enlightening!


“I’m doing everything subpar”, said one middle class American mother.

This narrative was common. Rather than critique their long hours, demanding employers, or lack of workplace supports, American women tended to be upset with themselves. They took personal responsibility (pumping at their desks, using individual coping strategies, seeing child-rearing as a private responsibility), rather than even contemplate (let alone demand) government support.

Whereas the vast majority of Swedes - 83% - think government agencies should be the primary providers of pre-schoolers. Why? Government services are affordable, high quality, and everyone uses them. This is normal, expected. It’s a shame to miss out!!

So, by taking a comparative perspective, Collins shows how family friendly policies enable working motherhood, and raise expectations. Whereas American mothers seem trapped, in a negative feedback loop, never seeing better, they do not ask for more. For me, this squashes arguments about women’s inherent preferences. Actually, they vary internationally, partly in response to more family-friendly government policies.

I’m less convinced by Collins’ point about ‘real utopias’, however. She suggests that if only American families realised that envision collectivist solutions, then they would surely demand and secure the same? I am sceptical, given the culture of economic individualism and fears of government redistribution benefitting Nixon’s welfare queens. Moreover, even when women have experienced collectivist solutions to child-rearing, and see benefits, that is not enough to secure their survival - look at the Former Soviet Union.

Now let me summarise the three books.


A hundred years ago, British women’s work was poorly paid and socially stigmatised. It has since gained social acceptance, but care burdens persist, and will continue to do so if women blame themselves for failing to do it all, in the absence of family friendly policies.

Methodologically, they show this through in-depth qualitative research: autobiographies, archives, and interviews. They add rigor by tracing change over time, across the century, over people’s lives, and between places.

My meta-contributions have been two-fold: pushing for more subnational and international comparisons. While I love that Collins shows how government policies shape individual choices, what about place (contrast the rural and urban within Sweden for instance), or pit villages and cotton areas in Industrial Britain? Second, I would love these brilliant scholars to study other world regions, because that pushes us to ask more questions and finesse our analysis about the single country case study.

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