The “Family Wage”

Marriage and Civilization (2014), by William Tucker, is a worthwhile book for many reasons. Among them is a mention of something that I have not heard anywhere else — the “Family Wage” agreement.

The “family wage” emerged in the late 19th century to allow women to withdraw from the workforce.

To unregulated capitalism, men, women, and children were interchangeable. … by expanding the workforce, all could be paid lower wages. … The response was a series of reforms that attempted to limit the role of women and children in the workplace. … All this came to a crescendo in the Family Wage Movement of the early twentieth century, led by a coalition of the Catholic Church, the labor unions, the social welfare movement, and even some Socialist political parties. The core principle was that the head of the household should be able to make a “living wage” that would support his family without his wife and children having to work. As John A. Ryan, a leading American Catholic reformer, wrote in A Living Wage, published in 1906: “The welfare of the whole family, and that of society likewise, renders it imperative that the wife and mother should not engage in any labor except in the household.”

Marvelously, the “Family Wage” achieved three major reforms at one stroke: 1) it raised men’s wages by limiting the size of the workforce; 2) it strengthened families by freeing women to concentrate on child-rearing; 3) it equalized incomes across society. ...

Although never actually formalized by statute, the Family Wage system became an informal contract in European and American society through the first half of the twentieth century. The general principle was that married women should not work. (p. 149-150)

Of course, this began to deteriorate in the 1960s.

Perhaps the most critical blow to the monogamous culture of the 1950s came with the demise of the “family wage,” the system adopted informally in America and Western Europe at the start of the twentieth century. The goal of the family wage was to strengthen families and distribute income more evenly across society by limiting everyone to one wage-earner per family. In practice, this became a simple rule: unmarried, divorced, or widowed women could work but married women were expected to stay at home with their children. This was regarded by middle-class reformers as a triumph for lower-class women who would now be able to create a protected domain in the home just as their middle-class counterparts had already done.

Unfortunately, the family wage was a disadvantage to one specific group — highly educated, professionally ambitious women. They would spend four years at college gaining useful skills and then be forced to “retire” as housewives. (p. 217)

Published by proprietor

Happily married, with children.

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