When a Woman Wins the Bread

As a feminist, I sometimes bristle at my own attitudes and expectations when it comes to certain things. Case in point: how it feels to be the primary breadwinner in my little family.

Loaf of bread with a few slices and a knifeTo clarify and provide a bit of context, my “little family” consists of me and my fiancé, who is in the process of finishing his B.A. at Columbia University’s School of General Studies (if you’re considering going, by the way, don’t. I’ll save my reasons for that for another post). When we met, he was a student, and I was employed. We’ve been together for almost two years, and we’ve been living together for about one and a half. Prior to meeting him, I’d been supporting myself since 2004 when I started graduate school, and I’d been in the workforce since 2008.

I didn’t grow up expecting that I wouldn’t need to work; indeed, working has always been a source of pleasure for me. I enjoy the feeling of having done something well, I like being challenged, and I’ve dreamt of having a successful, fulfilling career for as long as I can remember. Although my mother stayed home to raise my two sisters and me, neither of my parents ever made a point of reinforcing the sort of gender stereotypes that would suggest that a woman wasn’t supposed to work, or that if she did, she wasn’t meant to earn more than her husband. As I said above, I identify as a feminist, so theoretically I am open to the idea of a heterosexual household in which the woman is the primary breadwinner (I only specify heterosexual here because I have no experience living in a household of any other kind and so can’t comment on the dynamics that exist in relation to this particular issue). So the fact that, in practice, I’ve ended up a bit troubled by my bread-winning status has me a bit disappointed in my feminist self. Why shouldn’t I be the primary earner in the relationship? Why should I expect that, between my fiancé and me, I should be the one with more freedom to choose what to do with my time than him because I’m in a privileged position as a result of his salary?

I wonder if most women my age, and in my position, grapple with these same questions. And in my more introspective moments, I wonder about the degree to which they really represent a betrayal of feminist ideals. Is it possible that what I’m really experiencing is the stress of being the sole breadwinner in a two-person household in a terrible economy? Could my feelings be more a reflection of my frustration with my salary, and the fact that even though I’m close to 30, I don’t feel like I’ve lived up to the career expectations I had for myself? Honestly, I’m not sure what the answers are. I have moments of petulance when I wish I could leave the workforce, stay home, and do what I want without having to worry about whether or not it will bring in enough money for us to put dinner on the table. But doesn’t everyone have those moments, regardless of their gender or ideology? There are also times when I feel empowered by the fact that I hold a Master’s degree and that I can pay for things without having to rely on help from anyone, including my fiancé. More than anything, though, I find myself wishing I were in a position to provide us with a better lifestyle, one in which we didn’t have to worry about how to pay tuition bills, or student loans, or the rent. And I think a lot about how we’ve been socialized to expect certain things from each other and how he might feel in a relationship with a female breadwinner. With the pressure put on men to be the ultimate source of support to their partners, is it possible that he is in an even more difficult position than the one I find myself in?

By Emilie

Runner, yogini, knitter, Manhattanite in spite of myself. Also blogging at

7 replies on “When a Woman Wins the Bread”

You have no objection to being the “primary breadwinner” because you’re a feminist?!?

That’s funny I thought feminists were advocates of equality and as such they would be just as opposed to women as primary breadwinners as they are to men as primary breadwinners. Why must we have a primary and a secondary person? I thought the goal was egalitarian relationships rather than relationships where one partner is primary. Thanks for showing me the light.

I appreciate that you feel your point is so salient that you’ve repeated it in the comment thread, but you seem to be misunderstanding what feminist objection to the concept of ‘primary breadwinner’ is. It’s an objection to the idea that men deserve or get paid more because they’re ‘the primary breadwinner’ — that their work is the ‘real’ work, so they get the raises or the promotions while women in the workforce get paid less for the same job because their husbands are the ones ‘really’ bringing home the income. Its a paternalistic concept that is very deeply entrenched in the workplace and affects all of us. And it especially impacts households where the woman is the primary income earner for whatever reason — single parenthood, unemployed partner, necessity, etc.

And it goes beyond the actual income part to a certain set of societal expectations — that male worth is tied up in how much money he brings home, that they’re not ‘worthy’ if they’re not earning money, that staying home with the kids isn’t a valid choice for them.  Feminism makes the argument that women could be the ones bringing in the main source of income while their partners stay at home or go back to school or simply work at a job where she outearns him. That’s the definition of ‘primary’ within the context of this post. Feminist do strive for egalitarian relationships — but that doesn’t mean that every couple is going to be making the exact same amount of money at the exact same time.

That being said, if you really want to engage in a productive conversation, maybe you could leave the obvious derision out of your comments. K? Thanks.

I was once watching a documentary with Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark,NJ, where he is telling a female coworker how bad “patriarchy” is for women, how women are oppressed by misogyny-so on, so on. His coworker lets him finish, laughs and says the the young Booker, ” You know who I really feel bad for ? Men. They don’t even realize they are affected by the same things”.

Its a real a-ha moment in the film( and for Booker as well) when you realize that structures of power, even if they are favoring one type of personhood, are still slanted against you somehow. To boot, for the same ways that being a “woman” are strictly defined, so are being a “man” (that’s not even bringing in discussions of what happens when you don’t even buy into that binary). There is a similar amount of crap aimed at men meant to make them feel that they are forever not “masculine” enough – the two that might be most pervasive being 1. Is my dick big enough and 2. How do I prove I’m not gay. I think the reversal of the breadwinner situation falls into both again because it follows a strict code of what it means to be masculine and feminine and that shit is waaaaaay deep in our culture, even for those folks who are actively working against those ideas.

Those ideas really are deeply ingrained, aren’t they? I mean, there’s a significant part of me that wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with someone who’s attitude was, “I’ll be the one who works and you’ll stay at home [or get a less significant job/have fewer professional expectations placed on you/etc] because that’s the sort of life *you deserve*” and then at the same time I can understand and sympathize with the fact that this is a difficult situation for my fiancé because we live in a society that expects us to play right into that model. Like many gender-based issues in our lives, it’s complex, and something that really should be discussed and dissected.

I find that I always want to do everything, work full-time AND be a stay-at-home mom, just to prove everyone wrong. I want to show that (1) you can work full-time, be a good mom, AND avoid emasculating your husband–my husband always finds it hilarious that any man would be emasculated by such a thing, and (2) that you can be a stay-at-home mom AND espouse feminist values.

So I find that I put a great deal of expectations on myself and eventually, I’m going to have to choose which I want to follow and which I need to drop. I can’t work full-time AND be a stay-at-home mom, after all.

I know my husband doesn’t spend much energy at all thinking about proving something with his life, but I feel a sense of responsibility to be the change I seek. Does that make sense?

Sure doesn’t help that, like you, I have to fight childhood messages about gender roles in addition to the rest. Can’t wait for the day when my daughters or granddaughters won’t have to struggle with these things, or feel ashamed about bringing home the paycheck.

“daughters or granddaughters won’t have to struggle with these things, or feel ashamed about bringing home the paycheck”

There will always be struggle. Of some kind.

Why does just one partner have to bring home the pay check? You can’t imagine both having paychecks? I have heard that’s actually  the norm in fact

But then again, feminists have always objected to one partner bringing home the paycheck, so in the interest of equality of the sexes, it should be as objectionable to feminists to women breadwinners, and male dependents, as it’s always been  to have men breadwinners and female dependents. I mean if you really believe in equality. You see when your partner brings home “the paycheck” that leaves you in a position of dependency and inequality, and leaves you financially vulnerable. That’s probably why you want your daughters and granddaughters to bring home a paycheck rather than want them to be stay at home moms.

Your husband finds it hilarious that any man would be emasculated by his wife bringing home the paycheck? Then how does he feel about women who don’t like men bringing home the paycheck and prefer to earn their own way? Does he find that hilarious too?






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