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Female Breadwinners: A Winning Situation?

Barbara Bensoussan

In today’s financial atmosphere, many women are forced to seek employment to supplement the family’s income. What happens when a woman becomes the primary breadwinner? How can she balance this position with the roles of homemaker and helpmate to her husband?

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The description of a “breadwinner” dates back to the 1820s. Back then, bread was the staple of life, and he who provided the bread was a real “winner.” Today, the description refers to the financial supporter of a family. Our basic necessities have expanded way beyond bread, and as such, the one who supports the family carries a huge responsibility.

Most Jewish women, and their husbands as well, grow up expecting the breadwinner to be the man of the house. However, as we’ve moved into the twenty-first century, it’s gotten harder and harder for the average Joe — or Yossi — to make it alone. As noted by TARP Chairwoman Elizabeth Warren in a Frontline interview, the costs of housing and health insurance in the US have gone up seventy times faster than wages in the past thirty years. College costs have increased a whopping 439 percent since 1982 (more than any other major product or service). And nobody told Dr. Warren about the situation in frum families, where the high costs of yeshivah tuitions and simchahs have to be factored into the family budget as well.

The upshot is that almost every Jewish wife finds herself looking to do something to bring in some extra money, from home-based businesses like babysitting or basement stores, to high powered careers in law or medicine. Young women hoping to support a kollel husband for at least a few years are busily pursuing college degrees that permit them to earn salaries that can adequately support a family, and they often continue doing so even when their husbands have left kollel and entered the workforce.

However, the focus of this article is not on supporting a husband in kollel. That’s an entirely different situation where the role of “breadwinner” is a privilege — to allow one’s spouse the peace of mind to support the family spiritually.

Rather, we’re discussing the scenario where both partners work to support the financial outlay of the family. What happens when a wife who began to work as a financial helpmate, begins to outpace her husband in earning power? How does it shift the distribution of power in the family, of housework, and child care, and finances? How does a husband who takes pride in supporting his family feel when his role as primary breadwinner has been supplanted by his wife, and how can the resulting tensions be defused?


The Rise of Wives

The Pew Research Center released a report this November covering four decades of research on the American family. The results clearly show that the trend all across the US has been toward “the rise of wives,” noting that women are increasingly better-educated than their husbands. In fact, wives are currently the principal income provider in a fifth of all marriages.

“Females have been the majority of college graduates for the past thirty years,” Claudia Goldin, a professor of economics at Harvard University, pointed out in a recent New York Times interview. The higher levels of education mean higher salaries, and greater incentive to work out of the home.

Sharp-witted commentators have dubbed the current US recession a “mancession,” because it has affected men so much more severely than women. In 2008, three-quarters of the jobs in the US lost by adults in the work force were lost by men, leaving many women in the role of breadwinner by default.

Baila F., a Flatbush mother and grandmother, saw her husband lose his job in a financial firm. “He’s been miserable with our changed situation,” she says. “I’ve been running out to my job as the manager of a company, and he’s been home looking for work and taking on occasional consulting jobs. He feels terribly diminished and insecure.” She adds, “It’s a good thing we’ve been married for thirty years, and have built up a solid base of mutual respect, because his self-respect really took a beating.”


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