Housewives, Breadwinners, Mothers, and Family Heads: the Changing Family Roles of Women

ABSTRACT - Delayed age at marriage, decreased fertility, higher employment rates, and increased family headship indicate a major change in women's attitudes and relationships to family roles. Review of recent research findings suggests that women have redefined their relationship to the family so that their personal goals and interests can be met.


Janet A. Kohen (1981) ,"Housewives, Breadwinners, Mothers, and Family Heads: the Changing Family Roles of Women", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 576-579.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 8, 1981      Pages 576-579


Janet A. Kohen, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan and San Diego State University

[The work on this paper was funded by National Institute of Mental Health Grant MH-14618 to Elizabeth Douvan, Joseph Veroff, and Richard Kulka.]


Delayed age at marriage, decreased fertility, higher employment rates, and increased family headship indicate a major change in women's attitudes and relationships to family roles. Review of recent research findings suggests that women have redefined their relationship to the family so that their personal goals and interests can be met.

Only a generation ago, most young women planned their adult lives around marriage and full-time homemaking. Barbie dolls, Seventeen magazine, and Father Knows Best fed their dream of a home in the suburbs, a white picket fence, and several loving children. Women's participation within the family has shifted dramatically since then. Women are delaying marriage; planning whether, when, and how often they will be mothers; entering the labor force before their children leave home, often before their children enter school; and, a great many are taking the responsibilities of heading their families for some part of their adult lives. They are participating in their families not only as wives and mothers but also as breadwinners and family heads.

In the process, family forms and domestic relationships have been transformed. New issues have arisen around marriage and family organization. Such questions as whether to live together before marriage, what should be included in the marriage contract, whether to have a second child, when the kids are old enough to stay by themselves after school, and, who does the laundry or changes the oil in the car are becoming common family decisions. The impact, however, extends beyond individual families to virtually every institution in the society. Volunteer work in schools and hospitals; fringe benefits of part-time jobs; social security, pensions, and insurance benefits; child custody and child support; even census classifications have come under scrutiny.

The response to these changes has not been entirely positive. Some social commentators fear that the family is failing. A closer examination reveals that it is not the family which is being threatened but the traditional ideas about how families should be organized. Families continue to function but women no longer participate in them in the same old ways. Delaying marriage, planning fertility, participating in the labor market, and heading families indicate women's increasing desire and ability to control the conditions of their lives, including the conditions of their relationship to their family. Such increasing control challenges pre-existing ideology of women's tie to wifehood and motherhood. Beliefs that women want and emotionally prefer self-sacrificing behavior, particularly for their husbands and children, or what Barbara Ehrenrich and Deidre English (1978) have labeled "masochistic motherhood," are no longer consistent with woman's consciousness or behavior. Neither are theories which attribute a "culture of narcissism" to changes in the form of husband and wife roles (Lasch 1979). Instead, current statements and recent research in the four major areas I've listed above suggest not selflessness, nor selfishness, but increasing autonomy of women.

Delayed Age of Marriage

Young woman are approaching marriage today with a perspective that includes other roles besides family roles. Not long ago, women suspended self-commitments to their futures until marriage, expecting to build their lives according to their husband's interests and careers (Bardwick and Douvan 1972). Marriage occurred for some women even before high school graduation, although for most it occurred soon after. In comparison, young women are now waiting longer before they become wives. In 1977, 45 percent of young women between 20 and 24 years of age had never married. This represents an increase of 17 percent since 1960 (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1978). Instead of cooking, cleaning, and taking care of infants, almost one out of every two young women in their early twenties were accumulating advanced education and work experience for futures that most expect will include both family and employment. In a recent study by Cherlin (1980) enrollment in higher education and the expectation of being employed rather than a full-time housewife at age 35 were associated with delay of marriage.

Since most young woman expect to marry, these findings demonstrate an increasing awareness of the eventualities of marriage-financial pressures, divorce, widowhood, and, 20 years or more of employment eligibility following their children's departure from home. Rather than a passive awareness though, these women's actions imply self-conscious planning both in relationship to the roles they expect within the family and within the labor market.

Other evidence suggests an equally rational approach to marriage among young women. In the 1976 replication study of Americans View Their Mental Health, a study with which I've been associated as a post-doctoral fellow over the past year, Elizabeth Douvan's analysis supports a significant shift in the way young women view marriage. In 1957, the year respondents were interviewed for the first study, single woman were the most positive toward marriage of all marital status groups of women. They were even more positive than single men, a noteworthy difference since overall men were more positive about marriage than women. In comparison, the 1976 single women showed the greatest decline of any group of women in the number who placed a positive value on marriage. They were much more accepting of women who chose to remain single and were substantially more likely than their 1957 counterparts to view marriage as restrictive and burdensome (Douvan 1978). Instead of the idealistic and perhaps over-conformist stance of single women in 1957, the 1976 single women appeared to be more critical of the options provided by marriage.

The consequences of young women's shifts in marital timing and in attitudes toward marriage raise questions about these women's future marital roles. Delay of marriage could mean a swing to alternative family arrangements, or it could mean that marriage will be embraced with greater awareness of problems and greater commitment to chair solution. Young women are bringing more psychological and social resources to family formation but the type of family that results in the future is not clear. Whatever the family arrangements that get negotiated, there are hints from the 1976 replication study of Americans View Their Marital Health that young women will take part in those negotiations with a greater sense of personal identity. More married women than married men viewed their marriages as composed of two separate people rather than being a couple and married women were also lessclikely to view marriage as the basis for their social validity (Douvan, Veroff and Kulka in press).


One of the major factors enabling women to modify their family roles has been their control over fertility. Young women can explore relationships and decide on the form they will take without the perils of pregnancy. Once a relationship is established they can plan their parenthood around a variety of events including hers as well as his employment career, family income needs, child care supports, and a variety of other marital and family specific events. Such events, hers, his, and theirs, have had an impact on fertility. Married women are currently having 1.8 children. This lowered fertility has been associated with increased formal education, planned employment, and actual employment (Stolzenberg and Waite 1977).

While on the surface lowered fertility might imply a rejection of motherhood for career, a more thorough examination indicates the opposite. According to the Bureau of the Census, lowered fertility appears to result from a reduction in family size rather than a reduction in the number of woman who become parents. Instead of three or four children, women are now completing child-henries with one or two children (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1976). While the replication study of Americans View Their Mental Health indicated s significant relaxation of pro-natal form with an increasing acceptance of childless couples (Douven, Veroff, and Kulka in press), and the number of young women who say That they expect to remain childless is increasing (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1977), still childless women constitute about 5 percent of the population of young women and the number of women who are still childless by the age of 45 has remained relatively constant since 1960 (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1979). The decline is more likely the result of the ability of women to control their fertility to match their desired family size rather then having to adapt to unwanted fertility as they did several decades ago. Even though the decline has been associated with women's employment, there is reason to argue that the increasing financial coats of raising children may stimulate both women's employment and their lowered fertility.

A recent estimate of the costs of the first year of a child's life is over $3,000 (Ann Arbor News, July 6, 1980). Given both this initial cost and the continuing ones in raising children, women's wages become important contributions to the expenses of children both prior to birth and thereafter. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Studies, much of married women's income gets earmarked for the children whether it is basic survival needs, college educations, or certain luxuries. Thus fertility and employment are doubly tied. Having children increases the need to work; work tends to reduce fertility.

Furthermore, the mere ability to plan children nay also promote both woman's employment and their limited fertility. Having children when they are wanted makes each child more important and valuable than when children were simply a contingency of marital sexuality. In turn, the increased value of children increases the assessment of the goods and services that seem necessary for successful child-rearing. In a study of the value of children, Hoff-man and Thornton report that American parents want children for the love and relationship they add to the parents' lives but they also found that these parents report financial cost as a predominant disadvantage of parenthood (Hoffman, Thornton and Manis 1978).

Equally important in fertility plans are the problem of managing and arranging parental responsibilities within the financial, social, and emotional demands of the family. For the most part, these problems have remained a women's issue. Thus, number of hours in the labor force and the availability of child care have been associated with women's fertility behavior. For example, a recent study indicates that child care restraints are related to reduced fertility among mothers of young children who went to enter the labor market or increase their hours of employment (Presser and Baldwin 1980). Since time-use studies indicate that husbands' contribution to child care does not substantially increase when their wives enter the labor market (Robinson 1977; Berk and Berk 1979), employed wives' concern with the availability of child care sees to be a realistic consideration in their fertility plans. In most cases, mothers have more intimate awareness of their children's abilities than fathers. They, rather than their husbands, are more likely to experience the conflicts between employment to secure the children's needs and the quality and quantity of time necessary for rearing additional children.

From a research perspective, woman's fertility behavior raises a number of questions. Studies of fertility have usually been within the field of demography. As a result, the mapping of fertility change and its correlates has been informative of large populations. Few studies have focused on fertility decision making that occurs within the context of family events. Partially this is because panel studies are needed and panel studies require commitments of time, energy, and money. Partially this reflects the recency of fertility control on a mass basis. Not enough time has elapsed to estimate the affects. Partially, too, this indicates a neglect or bias against studies which focus on women's issues. We know that most women, and men too, have plans for eventual family size. We don't know how these plans get negotiated between husband and wife, how spacing gets determined, what family events precede fertility decisions of when or whether to have a child. Is having a baby a way of leaving a routine and monotonous job? On the other hand, is getting a job promotion or receiving tenure a career plateau that makes the possibility of having a baby more likely? Is the experience of having the first child--the medical experience, the post-partum family organization, the availability of support following childbirth--an important experience in fertility decisions? Oakley's recent study of childbirth would seem to suggest the answer is yes (Oakley 1980). Her extraordinary research has located fertility decisions within the events that surrounded women's experience prior, during, and after having a child. Since woman do control their fertility, hopefully, Oakley's research will provide a new model which focuses on women's experiences as the context for those decisions.


One decision that has become as commonplace in women's lives as fertility, particularly among young woman, is employment. According to results from the 1976 replication of Americans View Their Mental .Health, attitudes toward both housework and paid work have shifted since 1957. Housewives are less positive about housework and an increasing number plan to seek jobs. At the same time employed married women express a much higher level of job commitment, saying they would work even if they didn't need the money. Leisure is no less important to them than it is to full-time housewives but for many it is less important than work in fulfilling their major life values (Douvan, Veroff and Kulka in press).

These attitude have been translated into labor force participation. For mothers of school age children, employment has become the norm. Even among mothers of preschoolers it has become increasingly common with 42 percent in the labor market (Hoffman 1979). Housework, childcare, and husband-wife interaction have been adjusted to the job demands of wives and mothers.

Time use studies have indicated that one solution to the multiple demands incurred when women enter the labor market is to put less time into housework (Berk and Berk 1979). Since the fewer hours put into housework by employed married women is not made up by contributions from other family members, the amount of housework which gets done within the family declines absolutely. Regardless of the decline though, a large portion of employed women's week still gets devoted to it. Besides getting up earlier to do housework before work and devoting weekends to laundry, shopping, and cleaning, working wives also spend part of their wages for time-saving foods and appliances, although rarely for paid household help. Thus, employment gets translated into lowered household production less complicated meals, less ironing, less sewing--and higher household consumption--microwave ovens, dishwashers, and meals from fast food restaurants. Although to my knowledge we have no longitudinal studies on when, how, and what part of household production gets translated into household consumption, it seems evident that when family complaints arise during the process of household reorganization that accompanies entry into the job market, women assume the responsibility and adjust their lives accordingly.

While housework may lend itself to some reorganization, child care is more of a problem. Purchasing childcare replacements is limited both by availability and by costs. Working mothers often have to put together fragile packages of childcare from two or three sources. When these arrangements break down, as they invariably do, women assume the responsibility and adjust their lives to the crisis (Presser and Baldwin 1980). Despite these and other problems that employment brings into the lives of working mothers, the children rather than the mothers have received the most research attention.

Until the last two decades, researchers often hypothesized that being an employed mother was bad for children. As a result, the Nye and Hoffman volume, Employed Mother in America (1963), was a ground-breaking contribution to the study of the effects of employment on children. Their comprehensive review of research indicated that employment of mothers was not necessarily bad for children and even had benefits. Since then a variety of studies have indicated that children with employed mothers have more androgynous sex-role attitudes and that girls, in particular, have higher achievement aspirations than those from families without employed mothers. The implications for sons are less clear (Hoffman 1979).

If the children of employed mothers are somewhat different from those of full-time mothers, then the mothers' child-rearing activities must have changed as well. Obviously employed mothers spend less time around their children, although not necessarily lees time in mother-child interaction (Hoffman 1977). What about the standards and expectations they hold for themselves and their children? Little research has been devoted to this question yet it seems more than likely that such change has occurred. If so, then some problems that have been attributed to the effects of maternal employment may, in fact, be the result of a lag between non-familial institutional expectations and those of parents. In my collaborative study of divorced mothers [This study was done by Boston Women's Research Center and supported by a grant from Russell Sage. Co-researchers include Carol Brown, Roslyn Feldberg, Elizabeth Mawry, and Ruth Brandwein.], the mothers frequently felt that they expected a more mature and responsible role from their children than did the children's teachers and that classroom problems sometimes resulted. These mothers may or may not be correct in their evaluations but what this emphasizes is the intersection between changing family roles and the responsiveness of other institutions to these changes.

A more common concern of researchers has been with the impact of women's employment on marital happiness. Loxley's (1980) recent analysis of the 1976 replication of Americans View Their Mental Health suggests no significant differences in overall marital happiness by wife's employment. However, when age is considered, younger employed women report lower marital happiness than full-time housewives. The complications introduced by balancing child-care and housework with employment apparently dampens marital satisfactions. Since women shoulder lost of the burdens of adjusting family to work demands, such findings are not surprising. On the other hand, among older employed women who no longer have such burdens, employment apparently increases marital happiness (Douvan, Veroff and Kulka in press). Thus, in some cases, women's employment may give rise to family tensions, in others, contribute to the overall emotional climate of the family.

Women Heading Families

Nevertheless, expanding employment opportunities have often been cited as a reason for the increase in female headed families. Today, one out of every six families is being headed by a woman. Six out of ten divorces in 1975 involve children (Rotten and Glick 1979) and Bane (1976) has projected that 40 percent of all children will spend some time before they are 18 in a female headed household. Almost 70 percent of the women who currently head these families were employed during their marriages, a rate much higher than among married wives (Bane and Weiss 1980).

For a variety of reasons, though, employment opportunities alone are unlikely to explain the rise in female headed families. First, both employment rates and divorce races are higher among younger women. Second, women may enter the work force just prior to divorce in anticipation of heading their families. Third, women may leave marriage because their husband fails to earn money forcing them to hold a job despite their desire to be full-time mothers. In the divorced mother study I mentioned earlier, the latter situation was common among young mothers. Having supported the family until their first child was born because their husband would or could not do so, they realized that the birth of their child did not change his earning ability. Nor, for that matter did he take on greater responsibilities by caring for the child. As a result, being a divorced mother meant the same responsibilities they had as a married mother but with one less person to care for.

Finally, the economic and social situation of divorced mothers who head their families can hardly be described as an inducement to leave marriage. The end of the marriage for the women in the divorced mother study meant a drop of over 50 percent in family income, residential mobility, and, reliance on used or second-hand goods to meet family needs (Kohen, Brown and Feldberg 1979). While welfare and child-support stipends are a resource for female headed families, usually they are inadequate to support a family. As a result, whether the mother wants to be employed or not, she comes to depend on employment to provide for her family. Consequently, almost 90 percent of divorced mothers are employed (Bane and Weiss 1980). Yet, many women who head their families receive such low wages that they also qualify for welfare assistance. Thus, the picture of a married wife getting divorced because of the self sufficiency engendered by being employed appears to be a myth.

Certainly, employment opportunities enable women to head their families, but it is unlikely that divorces would occur if there were not changes in role expectations within families that produce tensions and conflicts. Returning once again to the divorced mother study, the analysis indicates that women choose single parenthood to escape such problems as alcoholism, violence, and continual marital disputes. If employment plays a role, it may do so by encouraging a sense of competence and self worth that enables a woman to end a marriage and head a family when either hers or her children's needs are threatened. In the divorced mother study, the women often had trouble finding jobs and worried about making ends meet, but they valued the independence and control that resulted from heading their families. These women were less likely to be self-sacrificing victims of unhappy marriages than women were several decades ago. Loneliness, fatigue, and poverty were balanced with a new sense of self identity (Kohen in review).


Each of the major areas I've addressed, delaying marriage, planning children, taking on jobs, and heading families, indicate changes in the way woman are relating to marriage, to family, and to themselves. Woman no longer accept or expect the traditional family roles of their parents. Marriage and motherhood continue to be part of women's lives but women are remaking these family roles without giving up their self-identities. They are developing a sense of autonomy and are no longer uncritically responding to traditional patterns and institutions.


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Janet A. Kohen, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan and San Diego State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08 | 1981

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