The Agenda

The Diversity of Ideal Family Models

Let’s talk about Ann Romney and Hilary Rosen in a slightly different way.

Among historians of the family, there is a broad consensus that the so-called “male breadwinner family” (MB in which fathers specialized in market work (or market production) and mothers specialized in family work (or household production) had a “late birth” and a “short life,” to draw on a chapter title from Stephanie Coontz. Traditionally, American women engaged in a combination of market work and family work, as a great deal of economic activity was home-centered, whether in the context of small- and medium-sized farms, small-scale craft production, or the outsourcing of household production, e.g., mothers who would take in washing to help make ends meet. The idea of a market sphere that was clearly distinct from the home emerged later as industrialization took hold.

By the early twentieth century, the idea of a gendered division of labor was firmly entrenched as an upper-middle-class ideal to which less affluent people aspired. One driver of this ideal was concern about the well-being of young children. Progressive-era social reformers were profoundly concerned about infant mortality, and the discovery that foreign-born mothers experienced lower rates of infant mortality than native-born mothers reinforced the sense that the domestic arts had been badly neglected. Though the term “human capital” had yet to be invented, there was a belief that the domestic sphere merited just as much attention as the market sphere because it was the space in which future workers and citizens were nurtured and cultivated. 

Around the same time, however, the intensification of industrialization and urbanization created (limited) opportunities in the market for women. The male breadwinner family thus had to be actively defended through norms and taboos and sometimes through explicit social regulations. As the intellectual historian Thomas Leonard has observed, social reformers, many of them highly-educated women, promoted exclusionary labor legislation to achieve a number of goals, e.g.:

(1) protect the biologically weaker sex from the hazards of market work; (2) protect working women from the temptation of prostitution; (3) protect male heads of household from the economic competition of women; and (4) ensure that women could better carry out their eugenic duties as “mothers of the race.” 

Had the male breadwinner family been a truly universal and uncontroversial concept, there would presumably have been no need for this active effort. But the hunger for diligent, trained workers meant that many firms were willing and even eager to hire women, particularly since prevailing discriminatory norms meant that female workers could be secured for lower wages than male workers. In a related vein, teaching was seen as appropriate work for women, though of course wages for female teachers were tightly constrained (by discriminatory norms, which contributed to the lack of other economic opportunities for educated women). 

Inevitably, the shortage of skilled male labor caused by conscription during the world wars led to a considerable relaxation of the stigma against market work for women, but both postwar periods saw a public reassertion of the male breadwinner ideal. After the Second World War, however, a number of other factors come into play which greatly eroded its power. The rise of the feminist movement was an important part of the story. But so too was the return, after the historically anomalous baby boom, of a historical trend of longstanding, i.e., shrinking family sizes. Another crucial factor was the advent of labor-saving machinery, which made certain kinds of household production less strenuous, time-consuming, and meaningful.

It might seem a little odd to talk about “meaning” as a commodity. But think about this through the lens of Richard Robb’s concept of the “economics of becoming:” 

In Nietzsche’s system, as interpreted in this paper, people choose goals, then work to overcome the obstacles that follow. As in sport, music or dance, they care about the process in addition to the outcome they expect it to yield. The system is most completely spelled out in Nietzsche’s posthumous notebooks, Will to Power. Exercise of will stands in direct opposition to GQC [gratification from quantitative consumption]. The GQC man does not exercise will since he is controlled by his preferences. Power is an appropriate metaphor in that it is inherently dynamic: power consists of the discharge of power. (It has the unfortunate connotations of dominating others which is not at all what Nietzsche intended.) Like in sport, we choose to overcome resistance, and the goal, once reached, will be replaced by another one.

The Nietzschean will to power (WTP) corresponds closely to Keynes’ “spontaneous urge to action.” Action means action with respect to a purpose and purpose equates to overcoming obstacles. An act of will is innately spontaneous and since it must be unpredictable – otherwise the actor would be controlled by external factors.

For much of the last century, the work of maintaining a household was strenuous enough that an educated person could find it authentically challenging and thus fulfilling. Part of the reason is that the share of U.S. households that are married-couple households with a child under the age of 18 was once much higher than it is today (in 1950, married-couple families with children were 47.8% of all families; in 2011, they represent 30.4% of all families), and maintaining a comfortable and hygienic environment used to be a far more labor-intensive undertaking.  

For more affluent and educated couples with small families or with no children under the age of 18, the attractiveness of specialization in household production declined markedly. People (quite understandably) sought more meaningful, stimulating, and challenging work. This, interestingly, has contributed to the relatively modest growth of wages for men since the early 1970s. Rising female labor force participation has introduced more competition for male workers, who were once shielded from this competition by intense discrimination against women. Yet men and women on average continue to have somewhat different patterns of attachment to the labor force. 

At this point, it is helpful to think about the work of Catherine Hakim, and in particular her “preference theory.” Hakim, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, has argued that we have seen a diversification of ideal family models as the once-hegemonic male breadwinner family (which was only hegemonic for a brief period of time) has been undermined by economic and cultural change:

Preference theory predicts a polarisation of work-lifestyles, as a result of the diversity in women’s sex-role preferences and the three related models of family roles. It argues that in prosperous modern societies, women’s preferences become a central determinant of life choices — in particular the choice between an emphasis on activities related to children and family life or an emphasis on employment and competitive activities in the public sphere. The social structural and economic environment still constrains women’s choices to some extent, but social structural factors are of declining importance — most notably social class. Preference theory forms part of the new stream of sociological theory that emphasises ideational change as a major cause of social behaviour. Giddens’ theory of reflexive modernity emphasises individualisation as the driving force for change in late modernity. Individualisation frees people from the influence of social class, nation, and family. Agency becomes more important than the social structure as a determinant of behaviour, even when ‘structure’ is understood in Giddens’ sense of rules and resources. Men and women not only gain the freedom to choose their own biography, values and lifestyle, they are forced to make their own decisions because there are no universal certainties or collectively agreed conventions, no fixed models of the good life, as in traditional or early modern industrial societies (Beck et al., 1994; Giddens, 1991). Preference theory can be seen as an empirically-based statement of the choices women and men actually make in late modernity. It contrasts with economic theories of the family (Becker, 1991) that assume that women and men form homogeneous groups, with contrasting goals and preferences, which make some family division of labour optimal and efficient for all couples, and produces sex differences in investments in careers. In sum, preference theory predicts diversity in lifestyle choices, and even a polarisation of lifestyles among both men and women.

The diversity of family models and lifestyle choices is hidden in variable-centred analysis, which tends to focus on the average outcome, the modal pattern and the central tendency. The diversity of ideal family models and lifestyle preferences only emerges clearly in studies using person-centred analysis (Cairns et al., 1998; Magnusson, 1998), which is still uncommon. [Emphasis added]

Hakim is not arguing that women’s sex-role preferences are the only factor shaping the landscape. But she is arguing that women’s sex-role preferences are extremely important, and that they aren’t universally shared. The upshot of this diversity, which is to say this absence of “universal certainties and collectively agreed conventions,” is some degree of tension:

The heterogeneity of women’s preferences and priorities creates conflicting interests between groups of women: sometimes between home-centred women and work-centred women, sometimes between the middle group of adaptive women and women who have one firm priority (whether for family work or employment). The conflicting interests of women have given a great advantage to men, whose interests are comparatively homogeneous; this is one cause of patriarchy and its disproportionate success.

Debates over women’s sex-role preferences often become contentious because the stakes are extremely high. If we assume that 10-30% of women are home-centered, another 10-30% are work-centered, and most other women fall somewhere in between, policy choices or (perhaps more to the point) cultural symbols and norms that privilege one group at the expense of the other can prove very costly to a very large number of people. 

When Ann Romney married Mitt Romney, in 1969, she was right twenty-years-old, and she had her first son about a year later. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 34% of mothers with children under the age of 3 were part of the labor force in 1975. That number was presumably somewhat smaller for women with a child under 12 months of age, and it was presumably somewhat lower in 1970 than it was in 1975. By 2008, labor force participation by mothers with children under the age of 3 had increased to roughly 60%, a marked increase. These numbers aren’t adjusted for family size, however. As the mother of five sons, born between 1970 and 1981, Ann Romney was part of a small and dwindling minority of women with very large families. These is good reason to believe that labor force participation for these women has been somewhat lower than for women with, say, one or two children. 

Now, this could actually reinforce Hilary Rosen’s core point, which is that Mitt Romney’s reliance on Ann Romney is a problem insofar as Ann Romney’s experience is idiosyncratic and not reflective of the experience of most American women. 

But there is another view, which is that for at least some women of Ann Romney’s generation, marriage was seen as a partnership that was both equal and specialized. That is, though Ann had specialized in household production and Mitt had specialized in market production throughout there marriage, both were full co-owners of “success” in the domains of child-rearing and breadwinning. This is the (far from universally embraced) idea behind the equal division of family assets after a divorce. 

Every family is different. There are many cases of midcentury married couples in which, say, the wife worked to support the husband through some kind of professional training, and then the husband earned enough to allow the wife to concentrate on child-rearing, yet husband and wife continued to consult each other in all meaningful strategic decisions. And of course there are families in which one spouse shoulders most of the burden in all domains.

The most important thing to recognize is that we’re now living in an age in which there is a diversity of ideal family models, and it is hard to see this diversity going away. Some might see this condition of heterogeneity in women’s sex-role preferences as an unstable equilibrium, which will most likely end in the share of work-centered women growing as the share of home-centered women shrinks. But I’m not entirely sure that’s true. My sense is that this heterogeneity will prove durable.

The heterogeneity in women’s sex-role preferences interacts in interesting ways with diverging patterns of land-use regulation across the United States. Families that place a strong emphasis on allowing female partners to specialize in household production might be particularly drawn to low-cost metropolitan areas, in which land-use regulations are relatively relaxed and housing and other necessities are relatively inexpensive. Families that place a strong emphasis on a less-specialized division of labor, in contrast, might be more drawn to highly productive metropolitan areas rich in job opportunities, thus easing coordination problems between partners in different occupations. Yet these regions also tend to have stricter land-use regulations and thus higher housing costs. It is easy to see how this kind of geographic sorting might exacerbate ideological polarization: families in the first camp will spend relatively less on the necessities of life, and might thus be more tax-sensitive, as federal taxes are the lever that can’t be controlled; families in the second camp might see federal taxes as far less onerous than the cost of housing, health insurance, and other goods purchased on the market, thus inclining them towards favoring more regulation of the market and more redistribution. In a diverse society, market income tells us very little about the subjective experiences that inform partisan affiliation and voting behavior, among other things.

(This is all very provisional. I intend to write more on this subject.)

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