Erick Erickson Is Terribly, Embarrassingly Wrong About Women

Unpacking a Ron Burgundy moment

On Fox News today, Erick Erickson told host Lou Dobbs that liberals were being "anti-science" by celebrating the fact that America's working mothers are the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of households:

"I'm so used to liberals telling conservatives that they're anti-science. But 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. We're lost the ability to have complementary relationships ... and it's tearing us apart."

Oh. My. God. Let's treat this Ron Burgundy moment with some data.

First, there is something troubling about this statistic. The majority of female breadwinners are single moms, who face an extraordinary tension between working pay and raising children. But I didn't hear Erickson mention the phrase "single moms." He was talking about women earning more than men. And the fact that some married women are out-earning their husbands isn't tragic. It's inevitable. And it's good.

Historically, the roles of a male and female in society have been clearly delineated. Up to the 1960s, mothers did the vast majority of housework and child-care and dads did the vast majority of paid work. But today, mostly due the rise of female education and labor participation, all three activities are much more evenly shared. In other words, contra Erickson, married couples are more "complementary" than ever.

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Here's the thing about this chart. This isn't a picture of the "unnatural" world that Erickson fears. This is the natural world! If anything, the unnatural world is the one where law deprives women of the right to vote until 1920 and where we discourage women from working alongside men or doing anything besides raising kids and cooking dinner.

The fact that dual-earner households introduce new challenges for couples is a social development -- one The Atlantic debates all the time. It's perfectly reasonable to point out that dividing chores and child-work between two equal partners is a different task -- and possibly more challenging -- than an arrangement where the husband works all day, comes home to a clean house, and plays with his kid for an hour. But these time-use questions have nothing to do with the contention that "science" shouldn't allow women to "compete" with men in the workforce. Far from "tearing us apart," it's widely acknowledged that dual-earner households allow families to live more comfortably.

Women might be complementary in Erickson's worldview, but they're primary when it comes to economic growth. The increase in female labor force participation in the last half century has added nearly 2 percentage points per year to GDP growth in the U.S., according to one study. The nice thing about the rise of working women is that no matter how retrograde your opinion of them, they're still making all of us richer.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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