The Male Breadwinner Model

The Male Breadwinner Model

The Male Breadwinner Model

How a 19th Century Theory Limits Women's Economic Opportunities

Karen Offen, historian at Stanford University in California, and a senior scholar at the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, explains how the antiquated economic theory known as the male breadwinner model has constrained women in the economy--and still limits them today.

At this moment of global economic crisis, feminist economists are attempting to redefine how we measure economic value and, specifically, to address the way in which women's economic contributions are often marginalized or discounted. What is the genesis of contemporary economic value models? And why is women's work consistently under-valued? One answer lies in the ascendancy of a pervasive theory, "the male breadwinner model," which first gained traction in England in the 19th century.

Advocates of the male breadwinner model asserted that there was a necessary sexual division of labor; under this model, men became the "producers" and women the dependent "consumers." Men's labor became more valued than women's labor, men's skills were designated as more important than women's skills, and men were paid more on the grounds that they had to support their families (though in practice their wages did not always suffice). By this way of thinking, women also became commodities, as marriage developed increasingly into an economic rather than a religious institution: a degraded "support institution for the female sex," as the German critic Louise Otto put it in 1847.

As the model of the male breadwinner gained ascendancy, women began to suffer increasingly from what has been labeled "the feminization of poverty." The predominance of "male breadwinner" thinking affected the pay of women working outside the household, who might earn only half, or less, of what men would earn for doing the same job. As a result, campaigns for "equal pay for equal work" began as early as the 1830s, and still continue today.

Nineteenth century socialists in England and throughout continental Europe argued that women's independence hinged on their right to work for pay, and argued that this alone would provide the solution to what was referred to as the "woman question"--the lively debate of the time about British women's contested roles and rights within society. Others suggested that, even if allowing women to work for pay was not the whole solution, the right to earn wages certainly offered a step in the right direction (though it did not address the disparities in the sexual division of labor in the household, which threw a double-burden on wives and mothers who found independent employment). Educators advocated vocational training for girls from the poorer classes in order to acquire a marketable skill.

The growth in numbers of single middle-class women whose families could not support them stimulated the demand for professional education; for example, to allow them to pursue careers as teachers. In contrast, poor women all too often became victims of an international "traffic in women" which developed to serve the extramarital sexual needs of men. In urban settings, when unmarried women or women whose husbands had abandoned them could not earn enough to support themselves or their children, they often resorted to prostitution in order to put food on the table and pay the rent.

This model of the male breadwinner, championed by English political economists (with notable exceptions such as the British philosopher, economist and feminist John Stuart Mill), spread and became firmly entrenched in many parts of Europe and around the world. It was even endorsed by the Vatican, with Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891). After World War I governments decreed that women leave their wartime jobs to make way for returning male veterans. They organized social security systems to favor male breadwinners with dependants.

Some of the stoutest advocates of the male breadwinner model were overseas Christian missionaries. During the period of European colonization and afterwards, in the later 20th century, it continued to affect development policies in ways that greatly disadvantaged women who had become accustomed to controlling land, dominating agricultural production, selling their produce in the market, and managing the proceeds.

In her path-breaking book from 1970, Woman's Role in Economic Development, Danish economist Ester Boserup underscored how the first-world agricultural development experts working in sub-Saharan Africa favored men as breadwinners by teaching them "to cultivate by modern methods" and "to operate the new types of equipment" in order to produce cash crops. Thus did "men's labor productivity . . . increase while women's remained more or less static," which had "the unavoidable effect of enhancing the prestige of men and of lowering the status of women." These interventions were driven by the tenets of the breadwinner model.

The values entrenched by the male breadwinner model remain central to much contemporary economic thinking and are rightly contested by many women and men. If we are to capitalize on this moment to re-think our economic value system, a re-evaluation and rejection of the breadwinner model must be at the heart of our new thinking. We must use this moment to assert that women's work must be valued and paid as highly as men's work--whether that is employment in the economy as it is conventionally understood or work women do within the home.


Ester Boserup, Woman's Role in Economic Development (1970).

Lee Holcombe, "Victorian Wives and Property," in A Widening Sphere, ed. M. Vicinus (1977).

Karen Offen, European Feminisms, 1700-1950 (2000)

Alice Kessler-Harris, In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Search for Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (2001).

Laura F. Frader, Breadwinners and Citizens: Gender in the Making of the French Social Model (2008).

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