The number of women who are their families' sole breadwinners has risen, as has the number of unemployed fathers, according to Census Bureau data released Friday.
The trend has been accelerated by the recession, but what's unclear is whether the shift will continue, said Kristin Smith, a family demographer at the University of New Hampshire.
"Whether this trend is short-lived or is lasting will depend on how the economy comes out of the recession," she said.
If the male-dominated jobs in manufacturing and construction industries don't pick up, the nation could see a continued reliance on women as the only wage earners for families, Smith said.
In 2009, 7% of married couples with children had only the wife employed, up from 5% in 2007, according to census data.
The percentage of married couples with children in which both parents work dropped from 63% in 2007 to 59% two years later.
During the same period, the percentage of unemployed husbands with children doubled, to 6%; the percentage of wives who were unemployed also doubled.
As husbands lost their jobs, wives' incomes became crucial to keeping families afloat, Smith said.
In a study based on census data and released in December, Smith found that in 2008, employed wives contributed 45% of total family earnings, up from 44% in 2007. It was the largest single-year increase in 10 years, she found.
Ellen DuBois, a professor of women's history at UCLA, said the presence and significance of women in the labor force is a steady development that started in the early 20th century.
"Now the standard working woman is a married woman with children," she said.
DuBois likened the trend to what happened during the Great Depression, when women were able to hold on to jobs better than men.
"When employers were trying to cut back on their labor bill, they got more bang for their buck by cutting back on male workers," she said. "Something like that might be happening now."
DuBois said women's increased workplace roles change the dynamic of the home.
"Men with young children take much more involvement with children now than their fathers or grandfathers did," she said.