In her latest, journalist Liza Mundy (Michelle: A Biography, Everything Conceivable) looks at the rise of the “female breadwinner,” an emerging generation of women heads-of-household who make more than—or otherwise do without—the man of the house. Mundy spoke with the Tip Sheet about The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family (Simon & Schuster).
How did you hit upon this trend?
I’ve covered gender issues for a long time, 20 years probably, and for the past six or seven I’ve been noticing, peripherally, the growing percentage of women on college and university campuses, which always struck me. I was talking with my editor and she was noticing the earning trend among women was rising. When I started looking into the data, I was struck by the number of women out-earning their partners. There had been a sea change in the past five or six years, which I found intriguing and worth exploring.
What makes it inevitable that the majority of American households will be supported by women, rather than men?
Obviously, this is a point that can be argued, and I’m sure it will be, but if you look at the data—say you look at the percentage of wives out-earning their husbands, that’s been going up steadily since they started tracking in 1997. If women are out-achieving men in colleges and universities, if most American city-dwelling, single, childless women under 30 already out-earn their male peers, what would stop it? I guess it could stop if women said no, this isn’t what we want, but it’s hard for me to see why this would happen.
Another way to look at is specifically at mothers: we know 25 percent of children are in single-mother homes, let’s say another 18 percent are in families where the wife out-earns the husband, we’ve already got 43 percent of homes where the mother is the dominant breadwinner. And for women under 30, a full 50 percent of births are to unwed mothers. So it seems quite easy to argue that pretty soon, the majority of children are going to be in homes female breadwinners.
Has this shift yet reached the level of our national discourse? Is the current discussion about the government’s place in women’s reproductive choices relevant?
There have been some really interesting economic papers on this, including one from the chief economists at Harvard, that says the pill made it feasible to enter college, and enter the professional world, knowing they could manage their pregnancies. There are economists who argue very strongly that the pill was a big motivating factor in changing the way women looked at their careers and how they invest in themselves.
I think the debate is more an attempt to discredit Pres. Obama’s health care than a backlash against women’s economic power, but the rhetoric certainly isn’t just about Obamacare—it’s about sexuality, independence, and economic empowerment.
Do you see the book at a political work? How do you hope it influences the national conversation?
I didn’t really see it as political. I have a chapter in which I try to explore all these economic issues, but a lot of it is exploring the impact on relationships. I would hope that it enhances and advances our awareness of what’s going on. I do hope that it influences the conversation around feminism, I think we’re at a moment of rigorous debate over whether women are still losing or starting to win. There are a lot of established organizations that are built around the idea that women are still losing, and obviously there are barriers still in place, but there are new questions that need to be asked.
Feminism has long argued that men’s earning power shouldn’t buy them more power in domestic relationships—just because you’re earning doesn’t mean you don’t have to pitch in around the house. For the first time, lots of women now have to decide, when they get home from a long day at the office, am I entitled to sit down and relax for a while or do I need to make sure we’re sharing the load 50-50?