In a trend accelerated by the recent recession and an increase in births to single mothers, nearly four in 10 families with children under the age of 18 are now headed by women who are the sole or primary breadwinners for their families, according to a report released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center.
The report reveals a sweeping change in traditional gender roles and family life over a few short decades: The number of married mothers who out-earn their husbands has nearly quadrupled, from 4 percent in 1960 to 15 percent in 2011. Single mothers, who are sole providers for their families, have tripled in number, from 7 to 25 percent in the same period.

This has significant implications for all facets of American life, from child-rearing to culture to economics. And it should wake up Republicans to the need to recalibrate their message.

Mary Anne Carter, the executive director of the new conservative group Woman Up, which aims to increase the GOP’s appeal to women voters, thinks it should. She tells me, “With the growing shift in breadwinning came a shift in financial decision-making and a need to reassess the so-called ‘women’ issues.” She found, based on the group’s extensive polling of women voters, that “women most care about economics, health care, education and energy costs. Efforts to address these issues should be a top priority for Washington.”

So how badly are Republicans doing with women?

In recent elections, Republicans have done modestly well with married women and with white women. They do poorly with minority women and single women. In 2012, Mitt Romney, won the votes of white women by a 56 to 42 percent margin and married women 53 to 46 percent. He lost women overall by a 44 to 55 percent margin.

Those results and the new data about women in the workforce tell us something about the GOP’s problem with women. For one thing, they are turning off women who are mothers (but unmarried) and who greatly influence if not control outright their household income. Republicans mocked (rightly so) the Life of Julia Web ad that promised cradle-to-grave government for a woman apparently with no husband but with a child. However, they never filled in an alternative vision.

The message that too many women heard from the GOP (and that Democrats exploited) was negative — finger-wagging at contraception and demeaning women in the military (as Rick Santorum did), commenting in outlandish ways about rape and decrying gay marriage. For those women not already in sync with Republicans, it came across as harsh, off-putting and mean spirited. They concluded that the GOP had nothing for them and, if they were single mothers, that Republicans didn’t really approve of them.

The message that focused on entrepreneurs, tax cuts and repealing Obamacare was not that attractive either. Most women don’t own or start businesses. If women were bewildered by Obamacare, they didn’t hear anything meaningful from Republicans about what they could do to reduce health-care costs (of which they, in many cases, were the primary purchaser) or protect them if they changed or lost their job. Considering how rotten the message and the tone, it’s remarkable that Romney won as many single women (31 percent) as he did.

Going forward, Republicans would be wise to change their tone (from hectoring, dogmatic, inflexible) to emphathetic. That’s not “pandering”; it is explaining that you understand their situation and are focused on them. Politics is not a college debating society or an economics lecture; it’s about communicating to overworked, distracted voters that conservatism offers something for them and is not an ideological smokescreen to favor the “rich and powerful.” Put it this way: The image of the fiery, ferocious conservative warrior that the right-wing media applauds is precisely the type that turns off women voters who aren’t already die-hard Republicans.

But it’s the substance that matters most of all. Here Republicans would do well to redirect much of their energy aware from a presently insoluble stand-off on taxes and the budget. There is no grand deal in sight, so why belabor the point? More important, as Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute writes: “Our real and serious debt problem will be driven not by the next decade’s budgetary spending, but by projected spending on entitlements stretching beyond 2023. We must enact structural changes to our entitlement programs that will decrease future spending, but we should not — as the new House Republican budget does — make reducing the amount of federal spending set to occur in the next several years a higher priority than helping Americans get back to work.” Even if you don’t agree with that, as a practical matter, the budget and tax reform discussions aren’t going anywhere.

What would a conservative agenda look like that was true to the underlying values the right holds dear and also translate to women, and other voters, not sold on or turned off by the GOP?

Rather than small government (which isn’t happening) or limited government (too technical and vague), Republicans should talk about value for tax dollars. That means throwing out the stuff that is useless, duplicative or only for the benefit of cronies, and redirecting what we spend toward middle- and lower-class people struggling to make ends meet. That doesn’t mean spending more; it means spending better and allowing people to control their own budgets and make economic choices for themselves.

Has the Education Department improved schools and test results? No. Get rid of it and give moms and dads a voucher or give a block grant to states to set up charter schools. Is the college debt problem getting worse because ordinary people are paying for other kids to pay outrageous tuition to study sociology at Harvard? If so, require schools to disclose their graduates’ actual earning potential and give a higher percentage of support to students pursuing technical trade and accreditation programs for fields that need workers and don’t require a four-year college degree.

On the health-care front, replace Obamacare with a voucher for those who want to buy insurance.

On the jobs front, the three most important items are energy, energy and energy. There is no doubt that domestic energy development will create jobs and lower fuel costs. Again, bread and butter is the focus.

You can go through almost every issue and find conservative policies that decentralize decision making, boost the economy, increase opportunity and improve the quality of life for Americans. That’s an approach that might get not only a greater share of women voters but a governing majority for the party that currently lacks one.