Q: Which gender is having more difficulty adjusting to the rise of women’s economic power? How has it affected dating and marriage? For example, what adjustments are independent, self-supporting women making in their dating patterns and choice of partners?
I think in some ways women are having more difficulty adjusting to their own rising economic influence and its far-reaching effects than men are. And up to now women’s reaction to their own success has been ignored. For years, the media in general and feminist literature in particular have honed on in men—accusing them of backlash, of overt hostility to women’s achievement and striving. Sociologists for years earnestly argued that men punish women who out-earn them by doing less housework and that women respond by anxiously doing even more. We now know this is untrue. Now, I’m not denying that there was—and remains—a backlash in some quarters against feminism and women’s achievement, but I also would argue that by now, men are on board with women’s achievement, women’s earnings, and the flexibility and life choices these qualities bestow on those women’s lucky partners. Academics agree that men now WANT to marry women who achieve and earn, and that men are now willing to compete for these women.
Another current argument, about men, seems to hold that in the face of women’s rising economic power, men are simply giving up and no longer trying. I don’t think this is fair or accurate, either. It’s way more subtle and complicated and interesting. Men are enjoying a wider array of life choices, including flexibility, domestic achievement, and the pleasures of intensive, hands-on parenting. A lot of the men I interviewed were enjoying being domestic. In some cases they even tended to be ambitious and showy (e.g. cooking becomes another venue for masculine competition); in other cases, men were happily doing the nightly maintenance cooking that families need. This may be one factor behind the so-called new domesticity.
In contrast, I think that women are still getting their minds around their new breadwinning status. Women are proud of their earnings, no question, but they are still struggling to embrace the idea that they are providing not only for themselves but for others. Women admit to secretly feeling proprietary about their earnings. I was surprised at the number of women who worried that their husband felt “emasculated” having to ask them for money. Why should your husband have to ask you for money? Of course that’s emasculating! Get a joint checking account! Start thinking like a provider, because you are one!
Q: For centuries, women traded such assets as beauty, domestic skills and sexual favors for financial support. Are there indications that men will adopt a similar strategy?
For sure. Men are bringing all sorts of new qualities to the marital contract negotiations. Over the past forty years, husbands have significantly increased the amount of housework they do, even as women’s housework load has decreased. Economists have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that this is thanks to women working and earning. When women entered the workforce and began bringing in household income, this gave women the bargaining power they needed to get husbands to pitch in more at home.
So men clearly are offering up their domestic services, and young, high-earning women are using their resources to make sure they find these guys. Women talked to me explicitly about waiting and shopping around for the right man, and cohabiting with him, to be sure he would be willing to do his part at home. This is one reason behind the rise in cohabitation. Women want make sure a guy will help sort whites from brights, and bring in his dishes from the table. Also, the young women I spoke to were sexually empowered and felt free and willing to wait around, experiment with different sexual partners until they found the right guy. One woman described this to me as “test-driving” a man on his sexual competence before she married him.
Interestingly, studies show that for both men and women, wealth AND beauty rank pretty high in the list of qualities they consider important in a potential mate. Men still want beauty, but they now also want money. This second part is new. For men, the importance they place on women’s domestic skills has plummeted. And women now place way more emphasis on male beauty than they used to. One high earning woman I spoke to was thinking of breaking up with her boyfriend because he had gained weight. Men are responding. Have you looked at men’s health magazines lately?
Q: What will happen to personal relationships now that women are competing for and winning the high-paying and high-status jobs that men once enjoyed? Will couples bring the competitive spirit of the workplace into their homes?
Definitely, a new element of competition has entered marriage. Never before have women and men been striving in the exact same terrain the way they are now. Back when humans were hunter-gatherers, both sexes were providers—but we provided different things (men, protein, women, carbs) and there was some gender-based division of labor. Now women are the hunters, bringing in the protein along with the men. It strikes me that a lot of the unfair and discriminatory laws and practices, which for centuries governed both marriage and the workplace, were in part about avoiding overt competition between men and women. Of course, for hundreds of years the way this was avoided was by reserving the best jobs and academic opportunities for men. So even when women were widowed or dependent on their own wages, and even when they had children to support, they couldn’t get good paying work. That was bad, but in some ways there may have been psychic motivation to the “separate spheres” arrangement.
Where we are now gives women a lot more opportunity, but at the same time, it can be hard on a marriage when both partners are working and striving and earning and attempting the same goals. This is one problem with our modern tastes in marriage partners: Currently, we want to marry a version of ourselves, particularly when it comes to education. We want a spouse with the same degree set. Maybe we meet that spouse in graduate school, even go into the same line of work. This can create all sorts of opportunities for feeling competitive, and psychologists have found that men and women will make all sorts of subtle psychic adjustments in order not to feel that they are in direct competition with the person they love and live with. Partners will cede certain terrains so that one becomes the accepted expert in one area, and the other becomes the accepted expert in another. Thus, a couple who are both in the same academic field might decide that one is the better teacher and one is the better researcher. They carve out domains where each partner can feel accomplished and non-competitive with the other. Problem is, when it comes to earnings, it doesn’t matter if you’ve carved out separate domains—you’re both bringing home a paycheck, with numbers on it. And a fascinating body of research in the workplace has shown it that we HATE it when people we are working with who seem similar to us turn out to be making more than we are. When it comes to salaries, we are naturally competitive and naturally inclined to compare. Precisely because of this, companies work hard to keep salaries secret. So who is the one person whose salary you are likely to know? Your partner’s! The person you wake up next to every day! I think this is one factor behind the rise in stay-at-home fathers: for some couples, it really is psychologically easier when one spouse is excelling in the work domain and the other is excelling in a completely different sphere. We may even return to an era of “separate spheres,” for some couples, but the good thing is, who occupies which sphere will no longer be determined by gender stereotype.
Q: Are the changing economics of marriage triggering an escalation of the number of divorces in America?
Economists argue about this, but the data do show that there was an escalation of divorce in the 1970s, at the same time that women entered the workforce en masse. That there is a correlation seems likely. The consensus seems to be that something called the “independence effect” was at work: women who wanted to leave unhappy marriages finally could do so. My interviews suggest that the independence effect is still at work, and that earnings do enable women to women to dump partners who are competitive or ungrateful or undermining or who make them unhappy. Similarly, women can avoid marriage to the wrong man. This overall is a good thing. It may lead to less marriage, and more single Americans, but it’s a heck of a lot better than the days when women were obliged to stay in miserable marriages they couldn’t afford to leave. It’s also better than the days when a man felt he had to stay in a job he hated. And it’s complicated: For college-educated people and in higher-earning marriages, women’s earnings are a stabilizing factor. They give the family a higher standard of living, make life generally easier and ease financial stress. So in some cases women’s earnings stabilize marriage and make it easier (and therefore, maybe, happier) and in other cases, women’s earnings may prompt women to choose to go it alone.
Q: What particular problems arise for people who have been raised with strong beliefs about the place of men and women in society, such as religious or ethnic groups with definite, unchanging ideas about what constitutes “masculinity” and “femininity”?
This is really interesting and important. There are quite a few religions which explicitly teach that the man is the household leader and household provider, and that women should submit to the leadership of the man. Given that this is often the demographic cohort in which women’s education and earnings outstrip men’s, it can create a real problem, both among congregations and within marriages, where both men and women may subscribe to the man-as-leader role, and both men and women can feel uneasy about living a life at odds with teachings. A number of people seem to be finding a loophole in the idea that it’s okay if the woman is the one who is earning if the man instructs her to do it. Michele Bachmann, when running for Congress, actually did make this argument: she became a tax lawyer because she was a submissive wife and her husband told her to do so. Then when she ran for president, she had to backtrack and start talking about respect rather than submission. We don’t tend to want submissive presidents.
For everybody, both masculinity and femininity are, to a certain extent, public performances: We feel masculine or feminine in part according to the way we are viewed by potential partners, but also by family members, friends, in-laws. I think the public aspect of both masculinity and femininity is changing. High-earning women who are single and on the dating market are trying to understand how to wear their affluence and still seem feminine, and in some cases are developing all sorts of little strategies. Young women I interviewed did things like make sure they had lots of petty cash—ones and fives and tens—so they could pay for parking and tips without having it seem that they were “paying.” Another buys movie tickets in advances and tells her boyfriend they were being given away at the office. Still another doesn’t let men walk her to a car, because it’s a BMW. Women may be working harder than they need to, though: studies agree that increasingly, for women, education and earnings are a romantic asset.