100 Women: How US mothers are the new breadwinners


In Richmond, two very different women are setting the pace in their busy homes

Seventy years ago Rosie the Riveter bared her impressive biceps and summoned American women into the workforce. Called to duty in the service of a country at war, women responded in the millions.

In the decades that followed, women's professional fortunes rose. Today they are chief executives and senators, doctors and lawyers, astronauts and engineers. They are also earners.

Almost half of all American women (40%) with children under the age of 18 are the primary or sole source of income in their families, according to a major Pew survey released this year. Back in 1960, the share was just 11%. It is a huge social shift.

Once, American mothers were dubbed "soccer moms". Then, after 9/11, we got to know the "security moms". Today's generation are the "breadwinner moms".

Rosie the Riveter Rosie the Riveter became a symbol of the US working woman. How are her successors doing?

But to lump all these millions of women together is simplistic. This story of financial revolution is really two stories.

The majority of these breadwinners are single mothers. They have no choice but to be the primary earner in their families, for the simple reason that they are sole breadwinner.

They are the women like Aretha Lewis, who I met in Richmond, Virginia.

She is a dynamo of a woman with four children and as many jobs. She runs her own in-home nursing business, volunteers, has a couple of other jobs on the side and is somehow squeezing in time to start a reality TV show about single mums.

Like many single mothers, she falls in the lower end of the socio-economic scale.

The number of single mothers has grown in America over the past 50 years. That fact we knew. What is really new in this story is that it has been matched by growth in the number of married women who earn more than their husbands.

Back in 1960 those women were a tiny proportion of the working population - just 3.5%. And the number who admitted to earning more was probably a lot less than that.

Today, according to Pew, 22% of married women with kids out-earn their husbands. And as women continue to be better-educated than men, that number is only expected to grow.

100 Women on the BBC

100 women logo

A month of reports and programmes on BBC TV, radio and online.

100 Women conference: Friday 25th October 2013, BBC Radio Theatre, Broadcasting House, London.

Follow the season via #100Women to join in the conversation - and look out for the final line-up.

What it means for families is dramatic. When a wife starts earning more that her spouse, her work commitments and schedule start to take priority.

Janet and John may both have a heavy work load, but when Janet's salary is $100,000 (£62,500) and John's is $70,000 it becomes more important that Janet can go on that business trip, work late or fill in at weekend.

What does that do to John? Suddenly it means he has to pick up more of the home duties. Women's ability to earn more has a direct impact on the relative involvement of dads - and not in a bad way.

This is anecdotal, but I know several women who earn more than their husbands and even today they don't like to advertise it very much.


Some legacy of tradition still means "real men" are expected to earn more than real wives. The machismo of the pay packet has not disappeared.

But among those couples something has shifted, often something unspoken and barely acknowledged. The husbands are making way for their wives' lucrative careers.

They are the husbands I know who pack more lunch boxes, who have the teacher's number on speed-dial and who have learned what time the dry cleaner closes.

Have women made the gains we thought they would back when they first stormed the corporate barricades? No, possibly not.

We are still paid less on the dollar than men, there are not enough of us in the top ranks of business or politics and we still carry the burden of doing more housework and childcare than our husbands. But I believe that is changing.

As women earn more, we change things not just at home, but in business too.

Women now control 83% of consumer purchases in the US. We've even broken through the car barrier, buying as many cars as men.

The power of our purse is attractive to companies. But there's a catch: women like to buy from people who understand their needs - we like to buy from other women.

At the Ford showroom in Fairfax, Virginia, I found out what that meant in practice. There are more women in senior positions throughout the company, from the boardroom to the sales room.

It's a virtuous circle - when women earn more we spend more, and in response companies employ, retain and promote more of us.

Of course, things are not perfect. But the growing economic power of American women is undeniable and it is changing everything, from politics, to businesses and even families.

Katty Kay Article written by Katty Kay Katty Kay Presenter, BBC World News

Obama in India: Why president's visit is also about China

Former US Ambassador to India Timothy Roemer explains why the country is a 'lynchpin' in Obama's foreign policy - and why this visit is also about China.

Read full article

More on This Story

100 Women 100 Women branding

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    Women played a major role in US history but most have been obscure in the past.However some were very notable.Among my favorites was Annie Oakley."Oakley's perhaps most famous trick is being able to repeatedly split a playing card, edge-on, and put several more holes in it before it could touch the ground, while using a .22 caliber rifle, at 90 feet"


  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    As the life achievements of women continue to increase in every field of endeavor relative to their historic average levels below men the advantage the US enjoys over other nations increases for yet one more reason. In the toughest jobs women try even harder to prove themselves as good or better than men. You don't want to encounter one of them in battle if she is a combat soldier.They're tough.

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    Unfortunately people don't realise how mentally and physiologically similar males and females are. There is next to no difference between brain activity and output. The rise in success from women in the workplace is due to changes in western culture. Boys in schools underachieve due to a neutral and negative attitude toward learning and achievement. Men need to begin to compete to re-balance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    This is a healthy development and personally, I'd love to be a house husband or share as much responsibilities, 'coz it's only fair.

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    155.Phffft ;
    I just want to say, mothers are very special people,payed work compared to raising kids is easy."
    Speaking as a mom, thank you!

  • Comment number 158.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    I would be interested to see more detailed statistics regarding the single mums.
    How many of them are receiving financial support from the father(s) of their children? How does this compare to the money these mothers are spending directly on their children?

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    "if you like ANYTHING you see around you a man made it."

    You are forgeting the vital role of women in all this.

    If women weren't standing about in impractical clothing incessantly complaining that they can't cross that swamp and still look elegant, or that floorboards make their feet cold or that when it rains their hair gets wet, then men would have settled down into happy, indolent lives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    As an fellow who did things the old way, I ran my business, my wife looked after the home & kids.Long ago retired,I now help fetching grand kids from school taking them to swimming & the like.Its only now after spending time with children can I see the sheer hard work in looking after them.I just want to say, mothers are very special people,payed work compared to raising kids is easy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    " we like to buy from other women.", "It's a virtuous circle - when women earn more we spend more".

    This is not a virtuous circle when women will dominate the market place, it will be the opposite.
    And being SO sexist when it comes to salespeople ladies, would you let us away with that?

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.


    I've got two science degrees. I was overgenerous when I said the number of women studying science or engineering was a 50th of the number of men. On my physics undergrad there were 2 girls out of just over a hundred, when I did my PhD it was a much closer ratio.
    What I meant to say, anything you see was originally designed by a man- from the auto-mobile to light bulb.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    I find sieuarlu's comment (149) "In America we want nobody left behind. Life to the max. Other nations...waste of human capital." really sad. There are amazing women doing incredible things the world over and usually without recognition.

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    Seems like a lot of men posting here are afraid of women. Who would know better than they do that they have good reason to be. Clearly they're intimidated and threatened by women who could do their jobs better than they do. As their competitor, I like seeing them remain as the lesser efficient choice for their jobs. Makes it even easier than it already is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    A while ago I heard a quote from a man `We are being reduced to sperm-donors.´
    If men are not required to work and take responsibility, they will do neither - human nature is like that. Fast forward a couple of decades - do we see a pretty picture?

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    "A Miami native who made history as the first woman to fly a Stealth Bomber in a combat mission will perform in the McDonald's Air & Sea Show, which begins today."


    In America we want nobody left behind. Life to the max. Other nations...waste of human capital. Those are the kind of competitors I like best.

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    Must be nearly 10 years ago I saw an interview with Air Force Maj. Jennifer Avery of the United States Air Force. Did she ever love her B2. Anyone who thinks a woman can't do a man's job never saw that woman. Wild horses couldn't stop her from executing her mission. And what was the primary mission of the B2 stealth bomber? To drop hydrogen bombs on America's enemies. She was gung ho ready.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    @ 115.

    As an unemployed engineer who started programming at the ripe old age of 8, I totally agree. IT functions are very easy to export, It's hard to compete with someone who will work for 1$ an hour when you have $50,000 in student loans. There was not one single women in the engineering program at uni. Turns out they were smart not to listen to the hype and avoided a dieing profession.

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    Re: No. 134 below
    posted by Cyril Nutkin
    16th October 2013. He wrote:

    "Ilived in the States and got to know a lot of Americans from all walks of life. I'd take any of them of a self righteous judgemenral fool. That's you that is.... At least I can speak English."

    Cyril says he speaks English. Could have fooled me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    "In the U.S. they still don't have an equal pay law so on average women get paid about 20% less than their male counterpart"

    When you factor in length of time at the job, average hours worked etc there is no statistical meaningful difference in pay. Men stay at jobs they hate because society says they must. Men making more is a sign of womens freedom of choice that men don't have.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    140. martyn, I read 111 Fox's comment. I don't see what the problem is. Please explain.


Page 1 of 9



  • Member of staff at The National Archives in KewFree information?

    The reaction when 13 departments were sent the same FOI request

  • Andy Murray in action in the Australian Open semi finalTeam tennis

    Why it pays for players like Murray to have an entourage

  • Dippy on display in the Hintze Hall. Photo by Nathalie DiazFarewell to Dippy

    Your stories of the most famous dinosaur in Kensington

  • Motorists make their way over Hannahstown Hill on January 29, 2015 in Belfast, In pictures

    Wintry images of UK's most widespread snow so far this year

  • Composite picture of David Cameron and Nick Clegg on separate official visitsMarginal choices?

    New funds for your town - but is visiting minister after your vote?

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.