MANY wives have become family breadwinners -2/00
Tue Feb 29 19:16:06 EST 2000
from: Smart Marriages
In domestic shift, many wives have become family breadwinners
"Statistically, marriages in which wives bring in the most income are not
significantly more likely to end in divorce."
By Amy Goldstein Washington Post, 2/29/2000
ASHINGTON - Susan Goldmark works on energy projects for the World Bank
here, putting in 11-hour days, shuttling to Latin America and drawing a
salary in the top 2 percent of Americans' income. Her husband, Kai Bird,
spends his days writing in the study of their Adams-Morgan house in D.C.,
working for years at a stretch on historical books that have earned
favorable reviews from critics.
Praised as his biographies have been, Bird said, ''my wife will be quick
to point out that they don't sell.'' After 25 years of marriage,
including 18 in which she has supplied most of their money while he has
produced three books, ''I might have a best-seller, and I'd still not be
able to pay back the years of dependency on her.''
Their lopsided economic relationship once would have been rare. In a
striking rewriting of the age-old compact between husbands and wives, the
proportion of couples in which the woman is chief breadwinner has been
increasing so markedly that nearly 1 in 3 working wives nationwide now is
paid more than her husband, compared with less than 1 in 5 in 1980. The
trend is particularly pronounced among the most highly educated women,
nearly half of whom have incomes higher than their spouses, according to
the most recent federal data.
The financial attainments of this army of American women - some 10.5
million earned more than their husbands in 1998 - are, in turn, testing
traditional gender roles in ways far more concrete than the feminist
movement of a generation ago. According to economists, sociologists and
couples themselves, wives' heightened wages have unbalanced other aspects
of the equation of marriages: housework and child care, economic power,
egos and expectations. ''This guy and I have worked out something that is
very special for any kind of relationship; we each have areas we have
expertise in,'' said Debra Judelson, a 48-year-old cardiologist in
Beverly Hills, Calif., whose husband has never held a full-time paying
job, except for a stint when he was on her corporate payroll.
Judelson earns more than $300,000 a year. Over the years, her husband, AJ
Willmer, has designed high-end stereo speakers, developed an early
expertise in computers, won election to their school board, invested her
income in the stock market, and been the main parent in charge of raising
their two daughters, now teenagers. They've been together since they were
students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
''My male friends found it the most uncomfortable, and some found it
disturbing,'' said Willmer, 45. ''Almost none understood. ... I've
enjoyed my lifestyle.''
Wives' rising incomes are an outgrowth of underlying social changes since
about the time Judelson's medical career began. According to Richard B.
Freeman, a Harvard economist who has studied couples' earnings, these
include a dramatic change in education habits (by the 1990s, US colleges
and universities were graduating one-fifth more women than men), combined
with other well-known trends: women's increasing tendency to work full
time, to divert little time away from their jobs to raise children, and
to join an array of occupations that were dominated by men a generation
The effects of these changes have been so widespread that roughly 30
percent of working wives of all ages - from their 20s to their 60s - are
paid more than their husbands, according to Freeman's analysis of data
from the most recent federal population survey.
Widespread as they have become, many couples nevertheless say that the
new rules of family income remain out of synch with their ingrained
notions of marriage. ''In a place deep down inside that I don't like to
visit very often,'' Goldmark, 46, said, ''I think I expected him to earn
more than me. And in some sense still (do) today.''
Statistically, marriages in which wives bring in the most income are not
significantly more likely to end in divorce. But Kathy Meyer, director of
the Business Enterprise Trust, a national organization based in Palo
Alto, Calif., that promotes corporate responsibility, said that
''financial disparity'' was a major reason why her marriage failed.
Her higher income ''was so unusual at that time,'' recalled Meyer, 51,
who married in 1971 and, with her husband, enrolled at Stanford
University a few years later to get an MBA. Armed with their degrees, he
ventured into low-wage nonprofit work, she into well-paid corporate jobs.
''Consciously, we were feeling, `Well, aren't we the pioneers?''' she
said. But he was troubled by the teasing of his friends, and she felt she
was shouldering too much of the burden. ''We underestimated how we had
been brought up and (the power of) traditional roles.''
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