In late May, the Pew Research Center released a report showing that more than 40 percent of U.S. households with children under age 18 list women as the sole or primary provider. Wives out-earn their husbands in nearly a quarter of households, which is surprising only in its low percentage since a 2011 survey showed women to be increasingly more educated than men, a trend that is only accelerating.
Yet this progress has come with an outsized level of anxiety. The public discourse on this topic is offensive and panic inducing at worst and petty and elitist at best, and in any case, supposes that this miraculous phenomenon somehow came about suddenly, rather than via several decades of steady employment and education gains.
On the political right: “You’re seeing the disintegration of marriage,” Juan Williams prophesied on Fox News’ Lou Dobbs Tonight discussing, with an all-male panel, Pew’s results; he also called this specter “terribly wrong.” Human Grape Ape Erik Erickson, another panelist on the program, claimed this evolution was, naturally, anti-science. “We as people in a smart society have lost the ability to have complementary [or was it complimentary? Who knows?] relationships,” he stated. The pundits’ handwringing prompted working mom and Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly to lambast her colleagues, waving a sheaf of papers at them during a later debate and saying “your science is wrong and your facts are wrong.”
It’s not just conservatives in a tizzy, however. The Atlantic and Slate, among many other publications, have made freaking out about women’s new destinies a cottage industry. Not that it’s bad to report on women’s domestic and work lives, but in the past year The Atlantic has run no less than four major stories about women’s so-called work-life balance, which sounds, from all these accounts, exhausting and joyless. Hanna Rosin, who has written on the subject for both publications, and is the co-founder of Slate’s lady-focused XX blog, also wrote 2012’s book The End of Men, which made the title subjects out to be the ultimate losers of the battle of the sexes, and presented many interviews with hapless househusbands (at least one of them publicly refuted) as proof. There have been dozens of first-person books, op-eds and articles from high-flying female executives, celebrities and government officials about how they “make it work.” Just this month The New York Times Magazine reflected on the “opt-out” generation of working moms (described as members of the “hyperelite”), who voluntarily left the workforce and now want back in, and their difficulties returning.
In sum, the media presents a range of paradoxes, none of them desirable, for working women and society in general. Females, this commentary seems to say, should worry about the jobs they’re stealing from men, their lack of free time, the rift they’re creating in their families, the precious egos of their partners. They should not simply enjoy their professional ascendency for one second.
This frustrating echo chamber surrounding working women, especially the so-called female breadwinners (such a silly, Hunger Games-like term to begin with) includes a lot of people, be they misogynistic TV anchors or elitist journalists, talking about these women rather than to them. The women who spoke for themselves were often of the hyperelite class and thus not particularly attuned to the realities of poor and middle-class households, certainly not in an economy like San Antonio’s.
We decided to talk to these SA women. We interviewed breadwinners who provided for just themselves or for their entire family and we tried to reach out to subjects as diverse as San Antonio, asking each woman the same set of questions ranging from finances to child-rearing to their working environment.