Why Do Some Feminists Get Uneasy When Women Make Progress?

Women are becoming better and better educated and earning more and more money—which can be problematic for people invested in the idea that women are always behind.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Back in the late 1970s, as an undergraduate at Princeton, I auditioned to be the loudspeaker announcer during halftime at football games. It would be, I thought, a great gig: sitting in some box talking into a microphone, narrating the funny skits the band performed on the field. I made it to the final callback, but in the end the judges gave the slot to a guy. They told me afterward that it was just too hard to imagine a woman's voice coming out of a loudspeaker at an Ivy League stadium. That was what the 1970s and '80s were like, for women: opportunity and setback, goofy small disappointments along with important big ones. We were there, but they didn't want anybody to, you know, hear us.

I forgot about that incident for a long time, but think about it now, sometimes, reflecting how far we have come. Four of eight Ivy League presidents are female. Around the country, women make up nearly 60 percent of college and university students. The default student on campus is no longer male; she is female.

This transformation has occurred in just a few decades, and it's global, a truth powerfully evidenced by a dynamic chart created by demographer Albert Esteve and colleagues at the Centre for Demographic Studies in Barcelona. Tracking trends worldwide—and projecting into the future—the chart uses blue dots to designate countries where male college students outnumber females; and red ones to denote countries where women students outnumber male ones.

Hitting the play button, you can see that in the 1970s, male students outnumbered female ones in most countries; by 2050, the demographers project, the reverse will occur and we will be looking at a world where women are better educated than men.

Esteve and colleagues also published a major paper showing that globally, the marital pattern that held true for generations--women marrying men with more education—has begun to reverse and women are marrying men with less schooling. This, they point out, will have an effect on who does the earning in marriage. As more women become breadwinners, Esteve says, it's necessary for scholars to begin to study how everything else—housework, divorce, childbearing—is affected.

I wrote about these trends in a book, The Richer Sex, which was published in March. In it, I argued that female breadwinning could someday become the norm. In this country, as in many others, the rise in wives' earnings relative to husband's is striking. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of working wives who out-earn their husbands has ticked steadily upward, from 23.7 percent in 1987 to 38.3 percent in 2010. It stagnated in the 1990s but began accelerating around 2000. There was a big jump in 2009, no doubt the result of a recession that cost more male jobs than female ones, but even after the recession formally ended, the percentage continued to rise. If you plot this rise in a linear graph, you can see that if the trend continues, the percentage of working wives who are primary earners would cross 50 in about 2036.


This does not include the large and growing number of single mothers (40 percent of children are born to unmarried women) many of whom are, by default, breadwinners.

When I was making the argument, I knew it would be controversial and that reasonable people would disagree. Still, it seems a point well worth pushing, given the changes that are clearly taking place in terms of women's achievements. I was careful to include the important caveats: There is still a gender wage gap—women overall make less, on average, working full-time, than men. This means that even when women are the richer sex, compared to their husbands and boyfriends—something that can powerfully affect relationship dynamics—they still may not be earning as much as they in fairness should. Discrimination still exists, and there are experts who believing women's earnings will always be depressed by childbearing. But the trends are unmistakable, the numbers arresting. Something is going on, in marriage. Something is happening.

I welcomed discussion, but what's been interesting to see that the only pushback has come from a feminist academic establishment that you'd think would be happy or at least intrigued by what's going on. Instead, responding to my book as well as Hanna Rosin's The End of Men, a number of feminists have argued that the female-breadwinning trend is not occurring or is minimally important. These voices— Evergreen State College's Stephanie Coontz, Nancy Folbre at UMass Amherst, University of Maryland's Philip Cohen—are part a feminist establishment that I deeply respect, but which I confess I have begun to think of as the Fempire, a group that includes some women's rights advocates and academics employed in those very institutions that are becoming predominately female. They point to the gender wage gap, as though it had not been mentioned. They insist that if you are calculating female breadwinners you must take into account non-employed wives, in order to get the number lower. It's fine to do that—the Fempire, I have noticed, prefers to use statistics that are least favorable to signs of women's progress—but if you're going to do that, you should also add in single moms, whose numbers counterbalance the stay-at-home ones. Whichever way you want to define them, the ranks of women breadwinners are getting larger. Sure, all this could halt tomorrow, or next year, but to paraphrase the Magic Eight Ball: All signs point to up. Does the Fempire think that all these educated women are not, in the end, going to have an impact?

Women are at such an interesting glass-half-full, glass-half empty moment: More women as primary earners, but often not making as much as they should. I had hoped that some other thinkers might take the argument to the next level, by saying: Okay, what do we do now? What should the plan be? Why argue against these trends instead? Why look only at the half-empty part of the picture? Part of this, of course, is a real concern for women's struggles. But you could also argue that there is an institutionalized mindset that sets in when you become an institution. A certain investment in your historical argument. Certain currently popular theories—that the gender revolution has stalled; that marriage squeezes women out of the workforce—have a hard time embracing situations where there is no stall, and where married women have a strong incentive to work. You could argue that the excellent advocacy organizations we have today, working against job and wage discrimination, tend to benefit from an air of crisis. You could also argue that in the months prior to the recent election, the Fempire wanted to keep women's issues in the headlines so that people would vote for, you know, the right guy.

In a recent piece for The Atlantic, Philip Cohen says there is danger in leading people to believe women's advance is inevitable. What is the danger? Presumably it's that women will stop striving, stop pushing for needed change, such as child care and leave and equal pay. I'd argue that the opposite will happen—that female breadwinning will help close the wage gap. I feature women in my book who are working in underpaid fields yet are the main earners in their families. And you know who is most bothered about this injustice? Their husbands. The husbands hate it when the wives are underpaid. I would argue that as men press their wives to ask for raises; as women become more aggressive salary negotiators; as young men invest in women's careers; as women feel pressured to achieve and support; they will earn more. Being the breadwinning partner is stressful, but it can be motivating, as men have long known. In book talks, I urge women to make clear, at work, that they are breadwinners. There is still a lingering presumption on the part of male bosses and managers that women's money is merely supplementary pin money, and this attitude can depress wages. So I do not think the breadwinner argument is dangerous. I think it's important and useful.

I think it's awesome that the Fempire has become an American institution. I'm glad it's here. As far as I'm concerned we are on the same team. And I would argue there is danger in the glass-half-empty approach. The conversation needs to be enlarged and updated. If it's not, the danger is that young women as a result will consider feminism irrelevant; that one day, the Fempire will look around and see that nobody lives there; that the citizens have departed and gotten on with their busy, demanding, interesting, productive lives.