8 biting responses to Erick Erickson's biological critique of 'breadwinner moms'

The conservative commentator argues that science wants men to bring home the bacon and women to fry it up

Erick Erickson
(Image credit: Fox Business News)

On Wednesday, the Pew Social & Demographic Trends Project released a study quantifying the rise of what Pew calls the "breadwinner moms." The headline statistic was that in 40 percent of U.S. households with children, the mother is now the primary or sole earner. (The Week rounded up this and lots of other fascinating numbers from the study.)

That evening, the study was a topic of discussion on Lou Dobbs' Fox Business News program. All four of the men on Dobbs' panel — Dobbs, Juan Williams, Doug Schoen, and Erick Erickson — were horrified by the study and the social and economic changes it describes, but Erickson, a conservative commentator, drew special attention for his take on the Pew study:

I'm so used to liberals telling conservatives that they're anti-science. But liberals who defend this and say it is not a bad thing are very anti-science. When you look at biology — when you look at the natural world — the roles of a male and a female in society and in 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've lost the ability to have complementary relationships... and it's tearing us apart. [Erickson, FBN]

This comment drew considerable backlash, so Erickson took to Twitter to reiterate his point:

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In case his argument still wasn't clear enough, Erickson then wrote a long column at his site, RedState. He starts out by noting that he and his wife both worked at the start of their marriage and when their first child was born, and then they decided the mom would stay home with the kids. "Ladies, if you want to work that's fine," he says. "But just because the world has moved on and seems to think the two-parent nuclear household with a stay-at-home mom is no longer necessary or useful does not make it so."

Many feminist and emo lefties have their panties in a wad over my statements in the past 24 hours about families.... In many, many animal species, the male and female of the species play complementary roles, with the male dominant in strength and protection and the female dominant in nurture. It's the female who tames the male beast. One notable exception is the lion, where the male lion looks flashy but behaves mostly like a lazy beta-male MSNBC producer....

We should not kid ourselves or scream so loudly in politically correct outrage to drown the truth — kids most likely will do best in households where they have a mom at home nurturing them while dad is out bringing home the bacon. As a society, once we moved past that basic recognition, we've been on a downward trajectory of more and more broken homes and maladjusted youth. Pro-science liberals seem to think basic nature and biology do not apply to Homo sapiens. Men can behave like women, women can behave like men, they can raise their kids, if they have them, in any way they see fit, and everything will turn out fine in the liberal fantasy world. Except in the real world it does not work out that way. [RedState]

Erickson's Fox Business News comments made him "the most hated man on Twitter," says Alex Seitz-Wald at Salon. But his follow-up blog post "only made matters worse by showing how much he doesn't get it." Here, eight biting critiques of Erickson's science-citing theory on work and gender:

1. We're all richer — literally — because of working moms

First of all: "Oh. My. God," says Derek Thompson at The Atlantic. Let's treat Erickson's "Ron Burgundy moment with some data."

The rise in single mothers is troubling, Thompson says, but Erickson's point is that married mothers outearning their husbands is tragic. It isn't. "It's inevitable. And it's good." It is natural for women to be allowed to compete with men in the marketplace and split up domestic duties with them at home. And in fact, adds Thompson, "far from 'tearing us apart,' it's widely acknowledged that dual-earner households allow families to live more comfortably."

Women might be complementary in Erickson's worldview, but they're primary when it comes to economic growth. The increase in female labor force participation in the last half century has added nearly 2 percentage points per year to GDP growth in the U.S., according to one study. The nice thing about the rise of working women is that no matter how retrograde your opinion of them, they're still making all of us richer. [Atlantic]

2. Where does Erickson get his science?

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Seriously, says Amanda Marcotte at Slate. "Erickson must have this nifty scientific 'fact' by studying the animals in the well-known academic text The Berenstain Bears, which clearly shows Papa Bear going out and earning the money while Mama Bear stays at home and cooks the food for the cubs." Actual animal behavior is much more nuanced, and in many cases egalitarian: Mother and father foxes both go out to forage food for their young, for example, and "other primates besides humans mostly shun the male-dominated monogamy that Erickson prefers," living in groups with plenty of "kinky partner swapping."

And as long as we're looking to nature for our gender roles, "there are also species where males castrate themselves before sex to avoid being eaten alive by females," says Salon's Seitz-Wald. "Perhaps Erickson would like to experience that — you know, because science?"

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The bigger question from Erickson's biology lesson is, "are we really going by the roles of the animal kingdom?" says Alexandra Petri at The Washington Post.

I wish he'd told me this sooner so I wouldn't have bothered to put pants on, bathe, learn language, and take the great pains I always take not to poop in my hand and fling it at people who say this sort of thing. I would write an in-depth response to this, but I am too busy urinating on a tree to mark it as the boundary of my territory. I am relieved to know we do not hold ourselves to a higher standard. It was getting annoying to have to sit through all those office meetings and not pick fleas off anyone....

Female breadwinners aren't even a sign of decay in the natural world. And I for one am relieved that we no longer beat our chests and drag each other off to caves unless we're in some sort of weird MeetUp group for that express purpose. Let's not go there if we don't have to. As Rabindranath Tagore put it, "Man is worse than an animal when he is an animal." [Washington Post]

3. Amazingly, Erickson is serious

The shocking thing about Erickson's FBN appearance and blog post is how transparently he rejects the very idea of gender equality, says Salon's Seitz-Wald. "He comes off like a liberal's caricature of what conservative men think."

For anyone not familiar with Erickson's work, says Steve Benen at MSBNC, this is a good time to reiterate that "he's not kidding. This isn't satire or a parody of Republican pundits."

Right about now, some of you might be wondering whether Erickson has a professional and/or academic background in biology, zoology, or anthropology that encourages him to speak with such authority about the nuances of gender roles in "animal species." As it turns out, Erickson has no scientific background in any of these fields — he just likes to make stuff up because it makes him feel better. After all, perhaps if he just throws around unsubstantiated claims about "science," those "feminist and emo lefties" who have "their panties in a wad" will cower in the face of his dubious intellect. [MSNBC]

4. This calls for the D word

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5. Breadwinner wives are awesome

Let's not be too hard on Erickson, says Jonathan Cohn at The New Republic. "Studies about gender, family, and the workplace inevitably bring out the Neanderthals in American media." And Erickson is right that the children of married, two-parent households tend to fare better than the kids of single moms. But when he takes off on how nature dictates that men should be the breadwinner, well, "my own views are a little different."

My wife has earned more than I have for most of the 18 years we've been married. And I have to tell you — it's pretty awesome. At various points in our lives, her job has been our source of health benefits, child care, and even football tickets. [New Republic]

6. These are my co-workers?

Many of the big stars at the Fox News family are, of course, married women, and some of them undoubtedly outearn their husbands. Here's Greta Van Susteren chiding her colleagues, in a brief post at her GretaWire blog: (Hat-tip to Mediaite)

7. Erickson is confusing culture and science

Don't forget that one of Fox News' top talents is married working mother Megyn Kelly, says Dan Riehl at Riehl World News. And "clearly, motherhood agrees with her, as much as does her high-powered career." So folks like Erickson may "enjoy what one might call a more traditional marriage, i.e., male dominated — hey, that's their business, not mine," Riehl adds.

But to suggest it all has something to do with science, or whatever? Well, maybe... if you got your science diploma in sixth grade. Erick is conflating a cultural argument with a biological one. That's a mistake and a surefire way to lose both arguments.... I'd like to think the world and gender roles are just a wee bit more complex than Erick's comments would suggest. [Riehl World News]

8. And a gratuitous jab at Erickson's weight

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