Last week, the Pew Center released an analysis of census data indicating that 40% of American households with children under the age of 18 now have a woman as the sole or primary breadwinner for the family.
Almost immediately, this news created a media ruckus, particularly in the world of conservative punditry, where it was largely seen by a mostly male commentariat as a harbinger of doom for the American way of life. On Fox News, Lou Dobbs moderated a discussion about the dire consequences of this shift in family dynamics and gender relations. Commentator Juan Williams lamented that “something [is] going terribly wrong in American society.” Blogger Erick Erickson went further, claiming,
“When you look at biology, look at the natural world, the roles of a male and female in society, and the other animals, the male typically is the dominant role. The female, it’s not antithesis, or it’s not competing, it’s a complementary role. We as people in a smart society have lost the ability to have complementary relationships in nuclear families, and it’s tearing us apart.”
To these guys, the idea of women working outside the home is destroying American culture. They’re saying that a society in which a majority of women support their families cannot possibly be compatible with a strong, traditional, vibrant society. Yet we need only look to the traditional Jewish culture of Eastern Europe of less than two centuries ago in order to find an example that gives the lie to conservative handwringing over women’s work.
In the traditional European Jewish society of the 19th century, family life and gender roles were governed largely by principles laid out in a series of verses from Proverbs, known as the Eshes Chayil, or Woman of Valor, typically sung to women by their husbands during the Friday night Sabbath dinner. The song begins, “What a rare find is a capable wife!/Her worth is far beyond that of rubies,” and goes on to enumerate the many tasks of this capable wife, both inside and outside the home—she:
“rises while it is still night,/And supplies provisions for her household/…Sets her mind on an estate and acquires it;/She plants a vineyard by her own labors./She girds herself with strength,/And performs her tasks with vigor./She sees that her business thrives;/Her lamp never goes out at night.”
In other words, there is nothing she doesn’t do: she takes care of the home, engages in agricultural labor singlehandedly, runs a successful business.
This was the ideal for the traditional Jewish wife, and in many Jewish households in nineteenth-century Europe (and many ultra-Orthodox communities today), women were the primary breadwinners, a role considered essential to the maintenance of a vibrant, stable, ethical society. The highest value of the community was Torah study, which was only open to men, and only possible as a vocation to those men whose wives were women of valor, maintaining market stalls and small businesses that supported their families.
Granted, this system, in which women were largely excluded from what was considered the most important work—study of traditional Jewish texts—degraded and devalued women and their remunerative employment. But the example of a thriving, stable minority culture that preserved itself against great odds for thousands of years based partially on the value of women’s work outside the home gives the lie to the argument that such work heralds the end of civilization.
Clearly, social values determine what humans think is natural at any given moment and place in history. In nineteenth-century European Jewish culture, it was natural for women to support their households financially while men studied. In fact, religious orthodoxy was born of a challenge to the naturalness of the system of women as sole breadwinners. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a group of reformers calling themselves maskilim, or enlighteners, came along. They insisted that that Jewish society was abnormal and unnatural and needed to be brought in line with Western bourgeois values in which women remained in the household while men earned. Contemporary ultra-Orthodox communities, still vehemently rejecting the bourgeois Western values of enlightenment, continue to insist that the “natural” arrangement of the household is for women to work outside the home to support their scholar husbands. Nature, it seems, takes many forms.
The Fox commentariat fears that the idea of women as breadwinners is destroying American society, that there can be no such thing as an ethical and healthy culture in which it is acceptable for women to work outside the home. Yet the Jewish culture in which those very conditions obtained for centuries managed to survive, in deeply hostile conditions, and to remain vibrant.
Perhaps, despite Fox News, American culture is not doomed after all.