The male breadwinner … now just a privilege of the upper middle class?
The birth of a new Royal baby here in Britain reminds us what privileged women have, and what their poorer sisters lack: a decently earning husband and therefore the prospect of a stable family life. Of course, when that decently earning husband is a prince, he doesn’t just bring home the bacon — he owns the whole farm.
This was one of the more controversial points which Tucker Carlson, the American conservative political commentator, called attention to when he delivered his monologue on the importance of the family earlier this year. If we want to have happy, functioning societies the wellbeing of the family should be a central concern of political life, Carlson said. Most of us could sign up to that.
What was difficult for some was his suggestion that where men do not earn decent wages women don’t want to marry them; and that the absence of marriage leads to the breakdown of the family ‑‑ to fatherlessness and single parenthood, and many other social ills besides.
The link between male employment and marriage is amply supported by the data (see here, here and here), but in pointing it out Carlson exposed a tension in conservative arguments: the free market can weaken the very families it relies upon to thrive.
Not only do processes of deindustrialization weaken male employment. As households split into independent units consumerism is fed by family breakdown and divorce.
Right wing commentators David French and Ben Shapiro were quick to defend the market from any ideas which might curtail its freedom . If people had disorganised families, they suggested, this was down to individual agency. They wanted the separation between our personal lives and the economy to remain intact.
Others were more interested in exploring the questions which Carlson provoked. JD Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, acknowledged that what was good for the market was not necessarily good for the nation but needed careful working out. Eli Finkel said the poor want to be married just as much as everyone else. Writing in the Federalist Willis L. Krumholz, explained that government measures had made marriage less attainable for the least well off. Suzanne Venker demonstrated with a barrage of evidence that women prefer to marry decently earning men. The result is, as academics Bradford Wilcox and Samuel Hammond have shown, marriage has become a privileged institution almost jealously guarded by the upper middle class.
Feminism and the war on the male breadwinner
In all this discussion about the free market and government interventions, hardly any mention was made of a third and more malignant factor in the decline of marriage: feminism, the almost universally accepted ideology whose central and explicit aim has been to dismantle the supportive role of the male in the family and the family with it.
State intervention and its destructive effects have been enormously amplified by accommodation to feminist policy, which has actively sought to undermine the male breadwinner role for nigh on 70 years.
Yet it is the male breadwinner role which middle class women, often feminists themselves, benefit from, both through marriage and when they get divorced. Working class women, on the other hand do not get married, as the forces ranged against their men mean they are unable to support a family.
Second-wave feminists have always made it clear that they regard women’s traditional financial dependence on men as the root of all evil. Quotations are easily harvested from feminist literature. Here, for example is Selma James, who set up the International Wages for Housework Campaign, speaking in 1983:
“The wage relation is not only a power relation between waged worker and employer but between those workers who do and those workers who do not have wages. This is the material basis of the social antagonism between the sexes. Whether or not we are in a relationship with men, let alone a dependent relationship, women’s dependence in society generally sets the terms of the relationship between all men and all women. Whether or not money passes hands between any particular individuals, the “cash nexus” binds the sexes to each other and into society. Women, the poorer sex, are the socially weaker sex; men, more powerful financially, can exercise social power against us in every area of life.” (1)
This financial inequality is the very essence of “patriarchy” – seen as the oppression and exploitation of women by men based on the economic “power” of the husband and father in the home.
And feminists have also been clear that they want to get rid of it. Here is Germaine Greer, in The Female Eunuch:
“Women’s Liberation, if it abolishes the patriarchal family, will abolish a necessary substructure of the authoritarian state; … so let’s get on with it”.
Or Kate Millet, who was also influential in her day:
“Why are we here today?” “To make revolution.” “What kind of revolution?” she replied. “The Cultural Revolution.” “And how do we make Cultural Revolution?” “By destroying the American family!” “How do we destroy the family?” “By destroying the American Patriarch.” “And how do we destroy the American Patriarch?” “By taking away his power!”
To the “patriarchal family,” as feminists like to call it, was attributed all manner of problems.
Male support for the family was described by a United Nations group in 1986 as the cause of violence against women, making the “economic independence of women … crucial.”
Sociologist Jessie Bernard regarded it as psychologically crippling:
“The wife of a more successful provider became for all intents and purposes a parasite, with little to do except indulge or pamper herself. The psychology of such dependence could become all but crippling.”
A highly influential British report of 1990 – ironically called The Family Way – said that (financial) inequality was the cause of marital breakdown:
“Inequality is not a recipe for wedded bliss. It is, on the contrary, one of the main causes of marital breakdown.”
Today we know that marriages are happier and stronger where the woman earns less than the man.
Dismantling the male wage
A central aim of feminist policy has therefore been to dismantle male support for the family. As Professor Carol Smart, CBE, explained in 1984 one way of killing off the patriarchy is to abolish marriage. Though this might sound unpopular or unrealistic, if tackled indirectly it could be done:
“It would be far more effective to undermine the social and legal need and support for the marriage contract. This could be achieved by withdrawing the privileges which are currently extended to the married heterosexual couple. Such a move would not entail any punitive sanctions but would simply extend legal recognition to different types of households and relationships, and would end such privileges as the unjustified married tax allowance. Illegitimacy would be abolished by realizing the right of all women, whether married or single, to give legitimacy to their children. Welfare benefits and tax allowances would also need to be assessed on the basis of individual need or contribution and not on the basis of the family unit”.
Another popular option was to get rid of the father. Prominent journalist Polly Toynbee suggested in 1989 that
“Women and children will suffer needlessly until the state faces up to the reality of its own inability to do anything about the revolution in national morals. What it can do is shape a society that makes a place for women and children as family units, self-sufficient and independent.” (2)
As Anna Coote, a government policy adviser, suggested in 1991, fatherhood was beyond salvaging:
“The father is no longer essential to the economic survival of the unit. Men haven’t kept up with the changes in society; to they don’t know how to be parents. Nobody has taught them: where are the cultural institutions tell them that being a parent is a good thing? They don’t exist. At the same time, women don’t have many expectations of what men might provide.” (30)
Yet another solution has been to increase the economic clout of women while eroding male earnings: by reducing the relative share of male employment (done) or reducing their hours (done), or by reducing the value of the male wage (done). Also important, of course, is increasing average female earnings.
This is why feminists are so unrelenting about the gender pay gap, even when it is acknowledged that women are paid the same for the same work. It is not about equality but about women and children being able to survive independently of men.
Finally, the system of taxes and benefits can be manipulated in such a way as to render female dependency on males extremely costly, make single motherhood a viable lifestyle, and get all mothers out to work.
This was the approach adopted in 1990 by the feminists who produced ‘The Family Way’ policy (Anna Coote, Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt). The Labour Party at the time wanted to remove the discriminatory nature of the Married Couples Tax Allowance, so that it could be used equally by both spouses. However, Coote et al argued against this because such a measure would still provide financial support for marriage that they regarded as “indiscriminate”. It would be far more “efficient – more targeted’’, they explained, to use public resources to support children and those who care for them [women] than discriminate according to the parent’s legal status.
They recognised that “A shift of resources away from the married couple’s allowance would, of course, affect married men’s take-home pay.” They acknowledged that this might be politically unpopular but discussed various strategies by which it might be done. After a continuous campaign to end the Marriage Tax Allowance and spend the money on needy mothers, the feminists had their way in 1999.
Under the new system even married parents with children were treated as individuals. A family of two working individuals (each earning £21,000) living with their children would benefit hugely from the personal tax allowance liability, which would allow them each their first £10 K tax free, compared with a single earner earning £42,000. Similarly, neither of the working couple would be liable for the 40% tax rate, whereas a single earner family would be liable for this rate although the family take home pay came to the same amount. On top of this, they manipulated the Child Benefit, the Tax Free Childcare Allowance, and the Child Benefit Tax Charge in ways which ensured that any family where the woman dared not to work outside the home would substantially miss out. It is detailed here.
Penalising the single-earner family
The result has been that a single earner married couple with two children, on 75% of the average wage ‑‑ a typical aspirational family ‑‑ face a Marginal Effective Tax Rate of nearly 73% ‑‑ higher than any other OECD country. Consequently, poverty has been heavily concentrated among single earner families and, of course, families with more children, where the mother is least likely to be able to work.
It also means that the main breadwinner is unable to increase his or her income because it would simply mean taxes would increase and benefits decline. This destroys the rewards of work and undermines the incentives to get on. It also means that employers have little incentive to raise wages because only the Treasury will benefit. The result is dependence on welfare and a mother who is forced out to work.
At the same time, processes that discourage marriage or even couple formation as a “tax trap” mean that some families are financially better off living apart. The Institute of Fiscal Studies said in 2010 that 95 percent of all single people would incur a couple penalty if they married or started to live together as a couple. Half of these would face a penalty of £101 per week. This is being tweaked by the Universal Credit but the situation is not about to change significantly.
Sociologist Patricia Morgan explains how the expansion of means tested or “targeted” welfare has meant that further and further up the income distribution, the state outbids husbands and fathers transforming them into liabilities. This may be why ‑‑ although the affluent are very much more likely to be married than the those with lower incomes ‑‑ the trend away from marriage is gradually working its way up the social scale.
The result of these policies has been that the UK has the highest rate of family instability in the developed world. Fatherlessness and resulting poverty are associated with poor social outcomes in education and employment, with increased mortality, crime, further family breakdown and drug abuse. This has been estimated to cost the UK£51 billion a year in lost tax revenue, benefits, housing, health, social care, civil and criminal justice and education.
Feminism is the quack doctor on hand to sell its poison as the cure. Rather than strengthening the position of the male so that marriage once again becomes viable for the less well off, his relative position is further weakened. For example, a Joseph Rowntree report noting that “male employment has fallen and earnings among low to mid skilled men have grown relatively weakly,” proposes women’s employment as the solution:
“for couple families having both partners in work offers strong protection against poverty even when wages are low. Given the uncertain prospects for future wage growth, women’s employment will continue to be vital for lifting families out of poverty.”
I don’t know how relevant the British experience I have outlined is to the situation in the United States. But I know that the paper on which Carlson based his data actually refers to a male’s relative earnings and says the decline in manufacturing has been part of the process. This seems an acknowledgement that there are other factors at work.
We need to stop pussyfooting around these issues. These changes are not a result of the culture of modernity or of some zeitgeist over which we have no control. They are the result of 70 years of an ideology which has been explicit in its aim to destroy the breadwinning role of the male, along with the family itself. The progressive ideologies which have helped to destroy marriage have been complicit in this process, as have the armies of social workers who feed off it.
Feminists have rent apart the fabric of society and we should, to borrow a feminist expression, “call them out” for it. By identifying and naming feminism, by understanding its workings we can begin to repair the deep wounds to society.
At the same time, we need to be careful to rescue any useful babies that might be swimming in the bathwater. For they are there. We also need to try to understand the psychology of feminism and the motivations that have propelled them. But that is another article.
If we can do these things we can move toward to a healthier society where family and community is at the centre. And feminism will become a fascinating period in history, an example of a hugely destructive movement but one from which a great deal can be learned.
Belinda Brown is author of The Private Revolution: Women in the Polish Underground Movement and a number of well-cited academic papers. British, she also writes for The Daily Mail and The Conservative Woman. She has a particular interest in men’s issues and the damage caused by feminism.
1. James Selma 1994, Marx and Feminism, Crossroads Centrepiece, Kings Cross Women’s Centre.
2. The worm-turned syndrome”, in The Observer, 17 October 1989.
3. “The Parent Trap”, The Guardian, 16 September 1991.