The biggest issue facing Tennessee’s women under Gov.-elect Bill Haslam’s administration is, by far, the unemployment rate and the loss of jobs in the state. Beyond the obvious — that families need a certain level of income to get by — the peculiar nature of this recession’s unemployment trends are having profound effects on women.
This recession has hit men harder than women. Jobs traditionally held by men have dried up, and stereotypes of women being more reliable and compliant have led to greater job stability for women. While single women have, by necessity, been our own breadwinners, married women were still often able to arrange it so that they could stay home with their kids while married men brought in the main family income. Even among two-income families, women’s income was often seen as an added luxury.
That’s no longer the case. Women’s income is vital to the financial health of the family. And often, it is the sole income of the family.
It’s difficult to overstate the effect that change is having and will have on Tennesseans.
Some men will adjust just fine to not being the primary breadwinner. Much like how the rise in divorce rates led to men being comfortable changing diapers or consoling pre-teen daughters or just being more hands-on than their fathers and grandfathers, there will be unforeseen positive consequences.
But it will be difficult for a lot of men who’ve been brought up to equate being a man with being the head of their household with being the provider. How will you be a man if you can’t take care of your family? It’s going to be rocky while men work that out.
Women who become the primary earners will find that they like the perks that come with being the provider, including being the person who is the final authority in the household. As the saying goes, “She who pays the piper calls the tune.” But now these new female breadwinners will discover how stressful it can be to provide the one income a whole family depends upon.
Haslam has got to find a way to put people back to work, and he’s going to be under tremendous pressure from both sides of the political aisle to do so. If Haslam encourages men to retrain for new jobs and go to college and compete on an even playing field with women, a Haslam administration probably won’t be any worse for women than just living with the general political shenanigans of this state. Yes, we may see some cuts for programs women care about, but we may also see that women’s increased earning power brings us a broader ability to have our needs pandered to.
If Haslam decides that he can’t fix our unemployment situation, and that the twin specters of illegal immigrants and abortion aren’t doing enough to frighten voters into forgetting about their actual problems, he’s already signaled his support of “traditional marriage,” and the definition of “traditional marriage” is conveniently flexible. Sure, right now, it just means a marriage between a man and a woman. But what if Haslam needs it to mean “a marriage in which the man is the head of the household and the primary breadwinner and the woman, even if she’s better qualified and more employable, stays home, and, if she doesn’t, she’s ruining it for everyone?”
What if it becomes easier to scapegoat women than to put men to work?
That could get very ugly for women very quickly.
It’s important to keep the pressure on Haslam to put people back to work without indulging in the narrative that women are taking jobs that should rightfully belong to men. A family works together, and the person who is best able to earn an income that supports the family should be free to support his or her family without feeling like he or she is betraying tradition.