Book review: ‘The Richer Sex,’ on contemporary women, by Liza Mundy
By Stephanie Coontz,
Are women about to replace men as the high-achieving sex? Women now earn the majority of academic degrees conferred in the United States. Their real wages have risen steadily over the past three decades, while men’s have stagnated. Today, wives in dual-earner families contribute, on average, 47 percent of family earnings. In 2009, nearly 38 percent of employed wives outearned their husbands.
Washington Post reporter Liza Mundy argues that “the Big Flip” in gender roles “is just around the corner.” Soon, she says, “women, not men, will become the top earners in households,” transforming the dynamics of male-female relationships.
Mundy deftly summarizes the remarkably rapid expansion of women’s economic and educational achievements over the past 40 years, demonstrating that women’s empowerment is an international phenomenon. I agree that women’s workplace gains, combined with the overthrow of laws and customs that once enshrined male privilege, add up to a true revolution. But I think she overstates its reach.
Mundy may be right that more households will soon be supported by women rather than by men, but in part that is because more women are raising children without male support; few of these women qualify as “the richer sex.” In addition, much of the growth in the share of income that wives contribute to households results from the long-term stagnation of men’s wages. Thanks to the ban onpay and hiring discrimination over the past 40 years, women’s average wages have risen from their much lower starting point, but they do not yet equal men’s.
The increase in the percentage of women in dual-earner households who earn more than their husbands is impressive, but such role reversals seldom last over the course of the marriage. Because working women still tend to make more adjustments to accommodate the demands of parenthood than do their working spouses, even women who outearn their male partners for several years in a row usually end up with lower earnings over a lifetime.
Indeed, in a paper released this month by the Council on Contemporary Families, sociologists David Cotter, Joan Hermsen and Reeve Vanneman argue that in some areas, the gender revolution has stalled since its surge in the late 1970s. The pace of occupational desegregation by gender has slowed or even reversed since 1990, especially outside middle-class professions. Working-class jobs, in fact, are nearly as segregated as they were in the 1950s. And since 1994, there has been a slight slippage in Americans’ support for nontraditional marital roles.
Nevertheless, Mundy is correct that the changes in behavior and attitudes since the 1970s constitute a social and economic transformation so far-reaching that it “will reshape the landscape of the heart.” Unlike many observers, she believes that this restructuring of intimate life will benefit both genders. Her interviews with women and men lead her to herald the emergence of a world where both sexes are “freer to make purely romantic choices” based on individual preference rather than constrained by stereotypes about who will or should be the primary breadwinner.
Mundy does not deny that many people and institutions have had trouble adapting to women’s economic and educational successes. She points to Asia as an example of the serious problems that arise when cultures cling to traditional patriarchal values in the face of changing gender realities. She also mentions (although too briefly) the difficulties facing low-income Americans, who have suffered a sharp decrease in marriage rates and an increase in male-female tensions because of changing gender norms and growing economic insecurity.
Even among the educated, affluent social groups that form the primary focus of Mundy’s research and interviews, the rise of the female breadwinner hasn’t been easy. Unlike the situation 40 years ago, a wife taking a job today tends to stabilize a marriage. But when she earns more than 60 percent of the income, the risk of divorce rises again.
Mundy provides many examples of men reacting with jealousy and resentment to a breadwinning wife’s success. Conversely, she reports, some female breadwinners become contemptuous of husbands who fail to match their energy and initiative, while others express the same entitlement that traditional male breadwinners used to feel about having the final say over how “my” money is spent.
Mundy, however, focuses more on the opportunities than the challenges of the gender revolution. She disputes the claim of many pundits that the over-representation of women in educational institutions has put them in competition with one another for a shrinking pool of eligible partners, enabling men to avoid committed relationships and forcing women to settle for unsatisfying hookups. Instead, she points out that many young women want to delay commitment and actively choose hookups as a way of meeting their sexual needs.
When it comes time for men and women to settle down, these educated, independent women are at an advantage in the marriage market, since men increasingly value education and achievement over traditional wifely traits such as being a good cook or housekeeper. And the payoffs continue after marriage. The greater the education and earnings power a woman has in relation to her husband, the greater share of housework and child care he does.
“The Richer Sex” offers a refreshing antidote to the dire predictions that are often made about the future of male-female relationships. But sometimes Mundy’s optimism exceeds the evidence. While casual sex is not as unsatisfactory for women as is often claimed, sociologist Paula England reports that women are less likely to experience orgasm in such encounters than in ongoing relationships and are more likely than men to face censure if they hook up “too much.”
Mundy stresses the wide array of options for breadwinning women. Some, she says, will remain single and happily immersed in intense female friendships. Others “will rescue the travel industry” as they fly across the country and around the world to locate the best partners. Many high-achieving women will inspire their lower-achieving partners to improve themselves; others will treasure having a house-husband waiting with a glass of wine and a good meal when they get home.
As more men discover the joys of domesticity, Mundy says, “man-caves will become a thing of the past, because the whole house will become a man-cave.” Society will also see “a renaissance of protection,” as supportive husbands mobilize their masculine traits to become the most fierce defenders of their high-earning wives.
I expect a more contradictory and uneven set of reactions in the next few decades, but I appreciate Mundy’s insistence that equality or even role reversal can enhance relationships. She offers concrete tips on how to negotiate the tensions spurred by such role reversals, and her interviews with high-achieving wives and their supportive husbands remind us of a truth too often overlooked when we focus on the possibility that men will envy their successful spouses: In general, people do tend to be bothered when an acquaintance excels at something that is important to their own self-image, but people in good partnerships take pleasure and pride in a partner’s success, even when it outshines their own.
Almost 50 years ago, Betty Friedan predicted in “The Feminine Mystique” that women would be better wives and mothers when their security and self-worth no longer depended on the size of their husband’s paycheck or the prestige of his occupation. Mundy reminds us that men, too, make better partners and parents when they no longer define their self-worth by such measures.
Stephanie Coontz , the author of “A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s,” teaches history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.
THE RICHER SEX How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family By Liza Mundy Simon & Schuster. 327 pp. $27