Speed Read

03.20.12

‘The Richer Sex’: How Women Became the New Breadwinners

A speed-read of Liza Mundy’s new book examining the changing nature of the American family: women are bringing home the bacon—leaving men to cook it.

It’s a generational shift that’s been a long time coming. For a brief chapter in the history of gender relations—what’s rightly been called the Leave it to Beaver era—dapper, chipper men provided for their effervescent, vacuum-pushing wives in a suburban Elysium of sparkling appliances and gas-guzzling, American-made cars. That time has passed, and good riddance, many say. Perhaps the largest single engine of change in American culture over the last fifty years has been the liberation of women, and now, as another wave of educated, professional females enter the workforce, we’re bound for a whole new set of adjustments and anxieties. 

While women have taken the lead in college graduation rates and are near to reaching income equality at work, men seem to be lagging, held back by societal and familial preconceptions about what a man should be able to provide in an economy that no longer allows most families to get by on one income. With couples dating and marrying up and down the social ladder, new questions arise. How should a blue-collar husband and father react when his college-educated wife begins making twice his salary? Will ambitious women begin to want more of their mates than the men expect of themselves? In The Richer Sex, Liza Mundy draws on the latest research and the experiences of men and women across America to examine what happens when women become the breadwinners.

The Contradictions of the Post-War Years

The period after the Second World War was the “high-water mark of the male-breadwinning ideal,” Munday writes, an influential but short-lived economic flash in which an American man from the working class on up could expect to earn enough to provide for his family’s needs out of his own income, and still have a little left over. But that doesn’t mean that the stay-at-home mom was embraced as the feminine ideal right away. Published in 1942, Generation of Vipers was a popular book that decried the influence of “momism,” and while today a nuclear family with at least one stay-at-home parent still sticks as a paradigm in the American cultural consciousness, it ain’t necessarily so. In the 1940s and immediate post-war years, some felt that moms who stayed home and cut the crusts off of their kids’ PB&J sandwiches had a particularly pernicious effect on the domestic sphere.

Grades: The Only Curves That Matter

While marrying up used to be the thought the best means of social advancement for women, we now know that if there’s one silver bullet for gender inequality, it’s education. We’re only just beginning to see what higher college-graduation rates for women may mean. And it’s not just that more women are graduating, but that in the United States—and more surprisingly in countries like Saudi Arabia and Mongolia—female university students now outnumber male students. Part of the reason women have overtaken men, Mundy writes, is because boys and their families are still working on the outdated principle that a young man can enter the trades and make a decent, reliable income. But that’s often not the case anymore.

Bye Bye, Boys’ Clubs

One of the most fascinating phenomena driving gender changes in the workforce, Munday says, is that of male flight, the tendency that men have to lose interest in or abandon a profession as more women enter it. Researchers have said that men show an aversion to what’s been termed gender “pollution.” As women begin entering a field, the most cited example being veterinary medicine, younger men begin to show less interest in that area of expertise. Older, established male veterinarians don’t leave the field, it’s just that the rising classes of veterinarians turn overwhelmingly female. Some researchers have predicted that this example can be used to predict what we’ll see even in traditionally male professions like law. “The women pour in,” Mundy observes, “and the men drain out.”

Equality of Ambition

As women learn more, earn more, and expect more, they will look for mates with the same qualifications, Munday says, and they will put up less with couch-potato males whose greatest achievements involve video-game hegemony. “To be attracted to a man, women felt he needed to be moving forward,” she observes. In interviews with women including a law student from Washington, D.C., and a 20-something who works in finance, Mundy found that women are careful when they survey the playing field of possible dates, and often weigh a college education and other signs of drive equally with looks. “It’s about always trying to be a better version of yourself,” one young woman said. “I find that somebody’s lack of desire—their contentment to stay where they are and not move forward—it’s not attractive."

So, How Much Do You Make?

It's the question some women will learn to dread, Mundy predicts, and they will learn different ways to cope with it or avoid it. Income is one of the most common measures people use to compare themselves to one another, and while we all know that any number of intangibles contribute as much if not more to a sense of success, the tendency persists. Behind the question of how much one makes, women know that there remains a whole set of unasked questions about who trumps who in a relationship, and many of them will try to avoid the question entirely, especially in the dating world. Chivalry is never entirely deceased, no matter how pale around the edges it may look, and women know that men still want to be the ones to pick up the check.

Throw It in the Pot

Forget politics, Mundy says, when considering how men and women will respond to the “Big Flip”—men and women in red states are just as likely as those in blue to face difficult decisions when divvying up marital responsibilities and family finances. The big unpleasant question, Mundy says, is just how much will the tables turn? Will it be some men who wait at home to pamper a wife back from a long day in the salt mines? Some women will feel entitled to such treatment, much as some men once did, as they begin to contribute a larger share of the family’s income. “But just as women begin to feel that maybe it is okay to luxuriate a little bit when they get home from work, the question arises: How much luxuriating is fair?” Mundy writes. “Women will wonder whether they deserve perks in return for being breadwinners, and in their heart of hearts, they will answer: Yes. Yes I do.”

A New Kind of Trophy Wife

Some researchers have said that men won’t mind the idea of marrying up, and that in fact some data shows they’ve been more willing to do it all along. Men may realize that marrying a woman who’s happy to shoulder their load may free them up as husbands and fathers in unexpected ways, and some men may actually begin to compete for women who want to have it all. A study in 2001 found that male respondents were much more likely to place a value on a woman’s earnings than they were in previous generations, demonstrating that in some ways the qualities men and women look for in one another may have begun to equalize. In a shift, studies have also shown that there has been a wealth-beauty tradeoff. Mundy found that “men are becoming more interested in wealth, and women in beauty.”

“Women will wonder whether they deserve perks in return for being breadwinners, and in their heart of hearts, they will answer: Yes. Yes I do.”

Mating Patterns

While many people will still be most likely to marry someone not far from where they grew up, the new generation of professional woman may be willing to search farther afield for a man who meets her exacting standards. Mundy spoke with young women who regularly fly off to Boston, New York, or Seattle looking for hard-working, high-achieving men who can keep pace with them, and many women in this set seem to be content having long-distance relationships. Half the attraction, many of the young women admitted, is that these connected young men often help the women’s career prospects, providing them with job openings and introductions they may not secure otherwise.

Outside the United States 

America isn’t the only country where men and women have been tossed into a tizzy over changing gender roles. Casting an eye abroad yields insight on some of the more fascinating, and some of the more bizarre, ways the sexes have discovered to cope. In many European countries, such as Spain, cross-border marriages have become popular. Spanish men have shown a liking for recently-immigrated brides from more traditional Latin American societies, whereas Spanish women tend to want to marry men from northern European countries, where people are open to greater flexibility in gender roles. Some men, fleeing inevitable change, take more drastic measures, such as the community of American men who go to Thailand to find tradition-minded women.