Cross-posted at Family Inequality.
In 2010, 28% of wives were earning more than their husbands. And wives were 8-times as likely as their husbands to have no earnings.
I still don’t have my copies of The End of Men, by Hanna Rosin, or The Richer Sex, by Liza Mundy. But I’ve read enough of their excerpts to plan out some quick data checks.
Both Rosin and Mundy say women are rapidly becoming primary earners, breadwinners, pants-wearers, etc., in their families. It is absolutely true that the trend is in that direction. Similarly, the Earth is heading toward being devoured by the Sun, but the details are still to be worked out. As Rosin wrote in her Atlantic article:
In feminist circles, these social, political, and economic changes are always cast as a slow, arduous form of catch-up in a continuing struggle for female equality.
Which is right. So, where are we now, really, and what is the pace of change?
For the question of relative income within married-couple families, which is only one part of this picture — and an increasingly selective one — I got some Census data for 1970 to 2010 from IPUMS.
I selected married couples (called “heterogamous” throughout this post) in which the wife was in the age range 25-54, with couple income greater than $0. I added husbands’ and wives’ incomes, and calculated the percentage of the total coming from the wife. The results show and increase from 7% to 28% of couples in which the wife earns more than the husband (defined as 51% or more of the total income):
(Thanks to the NYTimes Magazine for the triumphant wife image)
Please note this is not the percentage of working wives who earn more. That would be higher — Mundy calls it 38% in 2009 — but it wouldn’t describe the state of all women, which is what you need for a global gender trend claim. This is the percentage of all wives who earn more, which is what you need to describe the state of married couples.
But this 51% cutoff is frustratingly arbitrary. No serious study of power and inequality would rest everything on one such point. Earning 51% of the couple’s earnings doesn’t make one “the breadwinner,” and doesn’t determine who “wears the pants.”
Looking at the whole distribution gives much more information. Here it is, at 10-year intervals:
These are the points that jump out at me from this graph:
- Couples in which the wife earns 0% of the income have fallen from 46% to 19%, but they are still 8-times as common as the reverse — couples where the wife earns 100%.
- There have been very big proportionate increases in the frequency of wives earning more — such as a tripling among those who earn 50-59% of the total, and a quadrupling among those in which the wife earns it all.
- But the most common wife-earning-more scenario is the one in which she earns just over half the total. Looking more closely (details in a later post) shows that these are mostly in the middle-income ranges. The poorest and the richest families are most often the ones in which the wife earns 0%.
Maybe it’s just the feminist in me that brings out the stickler in these posts, but I don’t think this shows us to be very far along on the road to female-dominance.
Previous posts in this series…
- #1 Discussed The Richer Sex excerpt in Time (finding that, in fact, the richer sex is still men).
- #2 Discussed that statistical meme about young women earning more than young men (finding it a misleading data manipulation), and showed that the pattern is stable and 20 years old.
- #3 Debunked the common claim that “40% of American women” are “the breadwinners” in their families.
- #4 Debunked the description of stay-at-home dads as the “new normal,” including correcting a few errors from Rosin’s TED Talk.
- #5 Showed how rare the families are that Rosin profiled in her excerpt from The End of Men.
Lunad — September 13, 2012
I think this under emphasizes an important point - you can't look at women in America and only look at married women, a shrinking portion of women. For instance, if you looked at low-educated, unmarried, women and men, you might well find that women tend to make more money (especially if you include the prison population). However, this should be tempered by the fact that these women are much more likely to be supporting one or more children on their earnings.
Ashley Albin — September 13, 2012
Am I the only one who thinks that the bar graph with the woman as each bar looks like something that would be used as a scare tactic by MRAs or someone who wants to say "See? Women are equal now."
Right now, at such a small percentage, she is to scale; it makes it look like things as they are now are normal and good. If they wanted to make a graphic that emphasizes the low number of women making more than men, they should have kept with a normal bar graph without a human being inside of it.
Sofisufi — September 14, 2012
I find the percentage graph "of wives with greater income than their husbands" also completely omitting an analysis of race through the use of that image. The graph clearly is implying (and wants us to subconsciously go along with it) that the women who make more than their husbands are white, yet we are not supposed to wonder why or ask questions about that.
And does anyone else find that the woman in the graph has a very similar look to Hilary Clinton? What is that telling us?
So, according to this graph, the women that make more money than their husbands are necessarily white (we have no information about the mysterious husband's race by the way), become taller and slimmer (oh yeah, of course the woman who used to make less has to be portrayed as shorter and fatter as an embodiment of "backwardness"), and wear appropriate (= conservative) outfits - clearly the trouser suit is the ultimate sign that we have entered a "post-feminist" era.
I am also bothered by the fact that in order to examine women's financial success, the graph has to necessarily inscribed them within a monogamous, hetero-normative, marriage. It is as if women's financial success can only be examined in relation to men's financial success (not even as their work competitors but as their husbands!), because of course women have never tried to negotiate sexism outside heterogamy.
So many questions are (purposely) left unanswered by that graph! What about race? What about single women? What about lesbians and queer women? What about self-employed women and sex workers?
Perhaps, given that we deviate so much from the normative "white successful wife", our histories of income are not worth analyzing.
One graph, so many problems.