Aug 1 2013

Scorned or Celebrated, ‘Breadwinner Moms’ Are Misrepresented

Viewing women earners through an upper-class prism

A Pew Research Center analysis (5/29/13) released in May showing women as the sole or primary source of income in 40 percent of American homes—up from 11 percent in 1960—garnered considerable attention from the establishment press. But partisan bickering over “traditional” gender roles meant that the alarming disparities among working mothers went largely unreported.

On Fox News (5/29/13; Media Matters, 5/29/13), an all-male panel moderated by Lou Dobbs quickly spiraled into a misogyny-induced panic fueled by the startling realization that the 1950s are over.

All-male debate on Fox: Is the rise in breadwinner moms undermining social order, or is it dissolving society?

All-male debate on Fox: Is the rise in breadwinner moms undermining social order, or is it dissolving society?

“We’re watching society dissolve around us,” warned Dobbs, who went on to blame breadwinner moms for abortions and high-school dropouts. Two Fox News liberals (Extra!, 3/12) agreed: Contributor Juan Williams added that the rise of the bread-winner moms signifies “something going terribly wrong in American society,” while pollster Doug Schoen declared, “It could undermine our social order.”

But it was right-wing blogger Erik Erikson who stole the show with his scientistic analysis:

Liberals who defend this and say it is not a bad thing are very anti-science. When you look at biology, when you look at the natural world, the roles of a male and a female in society and in other animals, the male typically is the dominant role. The female, it’s not antithesis, or it’s not competing, it’s a complementary role.

Meanwhile, the New York Times (6/3/13) called the rise of breadwinner moms a “victory for working women,” and the Atlantic (5/29/13) declared: “Gender roles in the United States continue to shift away from the Leave It to Beaver model. Murphy Brown is winning.”

Never mind that the majority of female breadwinners (63 percent) are single mothers with a median family income of $23,000. Statistically younger, disproportionately black or Latina and likely to be without a college degree, these women do not have the luxury of choosing to stay home.

The mainstream press was far more interested in shining the spotlight on the minority who are married and out-earning their husbands, representing less than 1 in 4 married couples. Unlike the single moms, these breadwinners are a bit older, disproportionately white and college-educated, with a median total family income hovering around $80,000—more than three times that of their single, mostly nonwhite counterparts. Mainstream outlets called on this relatively affluent group to be the voice and face of breadwinner moms.

Republican strategist Anna Navarro emphasized freedom of choice on NBC’s Meet the Press (6/2/12), telling host David Gregory: “What we have to be as a society is accepting of what couples decide to do for themselves. There are some people who want to lean in. There are some people who want to lean back and be on a rocking chair drinking a mint julep.”

The Washington Post (5/29/13) spoke with four female breadwinners, three married and one single. However, all four women live comfortably in the wealthiest areas in and around Washington, D.C. And the single mother was a 42-year-old divorced Ph.D. working on Capitol Hill, wildly atypical of the single mothers described in the study.

Suggesting that a few privileged breadwinner moms signify progress, while ignoring the plight of single mothers trapped on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, works to mask how hostile a place the United States is to working families, especially moms.

The problem, misidentified as a glass ceiling for top earners rather than a structure that undervalues women at every turn, is presented as on its way to be solved, even if conservatives don’t like it. But the difficult truth is that women comprise a little under half of this nation’s workforce, yet account for nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage earners (Shriver Center, 3/2/12)—and it’s no secret the federal minimum is not nearly enough to support a family.

The U.S. is one of the only industrialized nations that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity or sick leave (U.S. Census, 10/11; CEPR, 6/09), a devastating reality for poor single moms forced to part with their infants days after giving birth, or to choose between a day’s income or taking care of their sick child. That’s why in 2011, nearly half of first-time mothers sacrificed a paycheck to care for their newborns (Huffington Post, 11/10/11).

So as mainstream liberals declare a feminist victory and conservatives descend into moral panic, working single mothers struggling under the crushing weight of poverty carry on, anything but liberated.