How The Golden Age of Marriage Hurt Equality and Families Financial Success.

Some believe an ideal marriage is where the husband provides and the wife takes care of the kids and the home. They might believe this is the way marriage is designed to be, and that it is the way it has always been; except it's not, and it has never been. The "traditional family" is based on the male breadwinner model. If you're not familiar with it, well that's kind of weird but I'll explain anyway. The male breadwinner model is when the husband works and provides financially for his family. In this model the wife stays at home, making sure to keep the house clean, raise the kids, and have dinner on the table when her husband returns from work. It's not as relevant today, but in the 50's and 60's this was considered the norm, and many believed that marriage would look like this forever, except it won't. Even the name "traditional" gives the impression that marriage has always been like that, and that veering from it is straying from the way the family was designed to be. However, the traditional breadwinner family is a myth. A myth built on an anomaly of a 20-year stretch that still impacts the definition of gender roles, equality, marriage and society as a whole.

Now to understand how the idea of the traditional male breadwinner family came to be you have to understand the history of marriage as a whole. As you might suspect it's a long history, and probably a boring one if you're not a Marriage and Family Therapist who gets his jollies studying the history of marriage. So for the sake of your attention span I'll try to make this as un-text book like as I can, I might even try to throw in some cool sound effects. Boom! Pop! Sizzle! I feel like we are off to a good start, now let's get to the knowledge (with real statistics and everything) so you can talk about it around the water cooler (do people still do that?) or the next family reunion. 

Let's take a look at the "traditional" male breadwinner family in all of its glory, shall we? It was epitomized in the 50's and 60's with shows like Father Knows Best, and Leave it to Beaver, encapsulated the golden age of marriage. In America and Europe, Marriage spread like wildfire, with 95 percent of people getting married. I feel like I should repeat that for emphasis, 95 percent of people got married. Not only that, but women were getting married at 19 which was younger than they had been in the last 50 years. Marriage was like the Tickle Me Elmo craze, everyone had to have it, but looking back they realized they got caught up in the frenzy of their time like everyone else. For those of you who are too young to remember Tickle Me Elmo just think Myspace, or any iPhone really. Marriage was the be all end all, the bee's knees, lit, or straight 100, whatever that means. Marriage fever was so crazy that 80 percent of people thought that if you preferred to be single you were "sick", "neurotic", or "immoral". So it should come to no surprise that questioning gender roles were associated with supporting communism. Blamo! I know right? The 50's and 60's were crazy.

Now you might be thinking about how the anomaly of the traditional breadwinner model came to be? Or you might be thinking about Game of Thrones, I don't know, I'm not a mind reader or a rapidly aging Bran. A lot of things brought about this anomaly but I'll focus on just a few and you will have to take my word on the rest. Trust me, I read big books about marriage so you don't have to!  When the depression started everyone did what they could to survive and get by. Once they got past that they went right into WW2. Congratulations on surviving the great depression, now go get shot at! During the war woman poured into the workforce, taking on jobs that no one ever imagined a woman could do. Also, child labor laws had been introduced in the 30's which put even more pressure on women to work and provide. By the time the war ended men returned to the jobs they left and a lot of women had to leave their jobs because of it. That's not to say they weren't happy to do so. Two decades of depression and war brought about a craving for domesticity that we had never seen before, and most likely will never see again. It happened in America, and it happened in Europe as well. That's why people were getting married younger than ever before. In 1961 almost all women expected to be married by 22. The depression and war combined with the first consumer economy made it easy for people to settle into marriage and accept the gender roles that had been accumulating over the previous 150 years.

The idea of the male breadwinner traditional family came in like a wrecking ball, crushing every alternative view in its path, and everyone was happy to let it happen. They were in the beginning of the first mass consumer economy in history, and the quality of life improved like nothing we have ever or probably will ever see again. Families could achieve a quality of living that was never possible with a single earner. Money after bills was taken care of had doubled; spending went through the roof, with the amount spent on household appliances jumping up 240 percent. Universities built houses for married couples. People believed marriage had reached the pinnacle of its evolution and no one thought it would ever end. Social scientist of the time viewed the new model of marriage as a result of modernization. Just think of the Jetsons, the creators could envision a future where they lived in the clouds, had flying cars, a robot maid, a talking dog, but envisioning a woman as more than a housewife was inconceivable.

So what happened to the Golden age of marriage, and why have we moved away from the traditional model that a lot of our societal structures are still based upon? Well, that's a great question, and I'm glad I asked. First, let's start with the idea of the 50's male breadwinner model that turned out to be a short-lived anomaly. You see for thousands of years most woman and children contributed to the financial well-being of the household. The idea of living off a sole income is ludicrous when you remember that child labor was legal until the 30's, providing families with three or more potential income earners. Aside from the additional income from children wives have always contributed. Whether it was thousands of years ago when they were picking barriers, setting, traps, making clothes, or hundreds of years ago when they worked outside the house until their children were old enough to take jobs, and then it made economic sense for them to stay home because they were able to save the family more money than they could make. Growing food, tending animals, dairying, cooking, fixing things around the house, making clothes, and canning food used to be viewed as vital to a families economic success. Over time people started to view their contribution as an act of love instead of a means of survival. Developing this mindset over time was part of the mental process of believing that the wife belonged at home. It is important to remember, and this cannot be stressed enough; women have always been a vital part of the family's economic success. The 50's and 60's are the exceptions to thousands of years of marriage. History shows us that wives did not stay home because they wanted to stay true to the traditional model of the family; they stayed home because it was beneficial to the family's economic status. The prosperity of the 50's made people lose sight of that. The 50's and 60's might have been the golden age of marriage but it is far from being or setting the golden standard. The myth of the traditional family was the result of hundreds of years of tinkering at a time like no other when more people than ever before in history believed that a one income family was normal. This anomaly would last 25 years before it came crashing down. RUMBLE RUMBLE! CRASH!

Little did everyone know at the time but the traditional family model was at the eye of the storm. The first part of the storm was the economy. From 1973-1980 the average wages fell, and the bottom 20% experienced the biggest losses. The economy and inflation made it harder for men to be the sole breadwinner. Men under 30 experienced their income dropping by 27%, for a little perspective that was the same per capita that income fell during the great depression. Housing prices also skyrocketed by going up almost 300 percent. Making it hard for a family to afford a mortgage on one income. The changing of the economic tide made a woman's earnings imperative for the family's economic success, just like it had always been. Woman flooded back to the workplace, and they were happy to do so because many of them weren't happy.

Woman flooded back to the workplace, and they were happy to do so because many of them weren’t happy..png

The 50's and 60's are often viewed through rose stemmed nostalgic glasses. Seen like a perfect family portrait hanging on the wall. It's only when we look closer at the picture that we learn things were not as they seemed. Inequality made the picture of the 50's and 60's possible. Inequality was the elephant in the room and it was no longer going to sit still. In the late 50's and early 60's, of the women interviewed who were content with their marriages still wanted something different for their daughters. In a separate poll of women who were very satisfied with their lives, only 10 percent of them wanted their daughters to have the same lives they did. The housewives of the 50's and 60's wanted their daughters to be more independent and pursue education. In the 50's and 60's woman got married younger than ever before, and 2 out of 3 dropped out of college, most to get married. So it was no surprise they wanted their daughters to have the things they didn't, but they had no idea how far their daughters would take it. With their mother's encouragement and the political and economic change, women were able to make dramatic leaps in equality. The introduction of the pill separated sex from childbirth, and women no longer had to live under the fear of an unwanted pregnancy that had been over them for thousands of years. Pressure from women also brought massive reform. Workplace discrimination started to be enforced, federal aid for school and woman's athletics became more accessible. In 1975 woman no longer needed permission to get a loan or a credit card. Women took their mother's advice and sought out personal fulfillment, and with access to decent jobs they no longer had to stay in loveless marriages, and the change in society made it easier to leave. The cultural mindset was changing and in 1978 only 25 percent of people thought that people who wanted to be single were "sick" "neurotic" or "immoral" compared to 80 percent of the population in the 50's. In 20 years women were able to set massive strides in equality and re-framed the family portrait. Many historians believe that it was around this time the first "you go girl!" was exclaimed.

The changes in the economy and equality put an end to the traditional breadwinner model and women once again were counted on for the family's economic success. Today duel earning marriages are more widespread than the breadwinner model was in the 50's. Even if the traditional male breadwinner model was financially practical it's still not desirable. Here come some more fun facts and statistics. Hip hip hooray! By 1976 75 percent of women said they would keep their job even if they didn't need the money because it gave them a sense of purpose that homemaking could not provide. Working wives report fewer feelings of distress than those who choose to stay home. Working women also get more say and help around the house and with childcare. Now marital equality is associated with greater marital satisfaction, and those who fall under the traditional roles are typically more dissatisfied.

The notion that the traditional breadwinner model has been the standard of marriage is a myth. It was a short-lived phenomenon and today the breadwinner model is only predominate in two segments of the population, the bottom 25 percent, which they might not be in if the wife worked, and the top 5 percent where there is no financial strain on the family. There is nothing wrong with wanting to replicate the traditional model, but for those in the bottom 25 percent, many of them might be there because of the false belief that it is normal and practical for a family to live on one income. Even with where we are now the belief of the traditional male breadwinner model is ingrained in society, and that's not a good thing. In the 50's and 60's, they believed the male breadwinner was a result of modernization. That belief has affected our countries work policies, school schedules, and social programs because they were all built on the idea that the traditional male breadwinner model would always be the norm, from now until the Jetsons. If you need an example look no further than maternity leave in America. It's the lowest in all developed countries, because why on earth would anyone pay a woman to do what she was traditionally always supposed to do. Buying into the traditional marriage idea is dangerous, because that's not where marriage is, has been, or where marriage is going. Marriage is on the slow road to equality. It's getting there but there is still a lot to be done, and the longer society holds on to the idea of the traditional family, where the man needs to provide and a woman's place is in the home, the longer the road to equality is going to be. Mic drop.


 *All statistics and general information was taken from the book Marriage, A History. By Stephanie Coontz. It was a great read and incredibly informative. You should have bought this book yesterday, but today will do. Also, full disclosure if you click the link and buy the book or anything else I make money. Like, making it rain pennies, and maybe even a few nickels kind of money.