Why are Americans so reluctant to acknowledge wives who are breadwinners? One reason is that couples in the U.S. continue to idealize and privilege a family structure with a male breadwinner and a female homemaker. Recognizing women as breadwinners threatens the idea that a family fits into that mold. When wives earn more than husbands, couples often reframe the value of each spouse’s work to elevate the husband’s work as being more prestigious and downplaying the importance of the woman’s job.
Breadwinning wives also don’t get parity in how household chores are divvied up. As wives’ economic dependence on their husbands increases, women tend to take on more housework. But the more economically dependent men are on their wives, the less housework they do. Even women with unemployed husbands spend considerably more time on household chores than their spouses. In other words, women’s success in the workplace is penalized at home.
Read: Emasculated men refuse to do chores—except cooking
One possible explanation for this is that by outearning their husbands, wives worry that they are breaking norms on gender expectations. The same norms are at play for men in female-dominated occupations, such as nursing, who are more likely than other men to do more masculine types of housework like power-hosing the deck or mowing the lawn. Women in male-dominated occupations, such as law enforcement, tend to do more feminine tasks such as cooking and washing the dishes. These men and women are “correcting” for their jobs by asserting their masculinity and femininity through housework.
I’ve seen these processes play out in my own research on how married couples with kids respond to men’s versus women’s unemployment. After interviewing dozens of heterosexual, upper-middle-class families in which one spouse was unemployed, I found that while men’s unemployment was framed as a grave problem in need of immediate rectification, women’s unemployment was not. That was true even when women had earned half or more of the total household income. (The couples I talked with were granted anonymity to talk openly about their family situations.)
The husband of one unemployed wife who for decades had earned about three to four times his salary told me that he would “be perfectly happy to have her just sort of hang out and enjoy life.” He felt no particular urgency for his wife to find another job, instead emphasizing that his income alone is enough to support the family. Of course, that would mean dramatically downscaling the family’s lifestyle—replete with vacations abroad, a house in an affluent neighborhood, and expectations of sending their teenage son to an expensive college.
Read: From breadmaker to breadwinner
But it’s not just men who are keen on enforcing the notion that they should be the family’s earner in chief. Wives play a crucial role in framing husbands as breadwinners too. A lawyer who had been the breadwinner in her marriage told me that after she lost her job, she turned her focus to her husband’s business and how he could grow it, instead of worrying about how she could find another job to ensure that their family remains financially stable. Ironically, her educational credentials and prior work experience mean that she is actually positioned to bring in more money than her husband. Instead of focusing on how the unemployed woman could get her next job, the couples I talked with focused their attention on ensuring that the husband’s career was flourishing. But when a husband loses his job, there is a frenetic focus on his next job.