Posted on 15 April 2012


‘The Richer Sex,’ by Liza Mundy
Published: April 13, 2012

Five or six years ago, my mother and I sat in a darkened theater talking about a couple we knew. The wife was an executive with Ivy League degrees. The husband had some nebulous part-time job, but mostly he stayed home with the kids. What, I wondered, does he have that’s attractive to her? There was a pause. Sperm, my mother replied.

Today, that conversation is as obsolete as “The Feminine Mystique.” For one, as The New York Times recently reported, more women are having children without marrying. In 2009 more than half of all births to women under 30 occurred outside marriage — an institution that is losing popularity in historic proportions.

Male underemployment, the surge in women’s economic fortunes and the decline in marriage swirled into a meme in 2010, when an article in The Atlantic asked, “What if the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women?” The next year, the magazine ran a long essay in which the writer observed that the pool of those considered “traditionally ‘marriageable’ men” — the highly educated, the financially secure — was “radically shrinking.”

This is the terrain Liza Mundy strides into in her ambitious new book, “The Richer Sex.” Mundy predicts that women’s economic rise above men, which she calls “The Big Flip” — one of several cutesy terms she uses, along with “breadwomen,” her word for female breadwinners — will benefit everyone. “Women’s earnings will bring about a new liberation for women but also for men,” she writes. “More women will marry down; more men will marry up.” (Sounds like something that happened on “Downton Abbey.”)

Its utopianism is one thing separating “The Richer Sex” from earlier manifestos and exposés about women, as well as from tedious conservative declamations warning that anything less than some mythical 1950s ideal is bad news. Another is Mundy’s fresh reporting and the reams of new social science research she summarizes to make her case.

But one of the maddening things about this book is that Mundy never met a sociologist she didn’t like. While it’s provisionally heartening to read her gloss of a study tentatively arguing that “for the first time in modern history, mothers in some key professions may enjoy the same earnings boost that fathers have long enjoyed,” I was less persuaded by her use of recent scholarship to overturn the gloomy conclusions of Arlie Hochschild’s influential 1989 book “The Second Shift,” which argued that even though women were entering the workplace, they also did a majority of the housework (thus the book’s title). Mundy refers to a study showing that “ ‘husbands average slightly more’ total work per week” when one counts paid and unpaid work. But this doesn’t tell the whole story, as respondents to the study did not always count child care as primary “unpaid work” — the bulk of which still falls mostly to women.

Even so, given women’s bleak economic past, Mundy’s cheer about the research measuring women’s rise is understandable. She does a service reporting the numbers documenting women’s increasing economic power: women hold 51 percent of jobs in “management, professional and related occupations,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; “wives are breadwinners or co-earners in about two-thirds of American marriages” — although to combine breadwinner and co-earner muddies her case. Education has become a woman’s game: women earn 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees and make up 60 percent of graduate students.

Mundy notes that the wage gap between genders persists, but to her, the take-away is its shrinking. The statistics she quotes bring some good — or at least improved — news: In 2010, women earned 81.2 percent of men’s earnings, up from 62 percent in 1979. “The same factors that have narrowed the gap are likely to close it,” Mundy writes, pointing to jobs (postal workers, stock clerks) and demographics (younger women) for which the gap has already dwindled or disappeared.

I’m not going to break out the Champagne just yet. Older women, who studies show have significantly smaller incomes than men, lose out here. And some studies comparing male and female earnings demonstrate women’s inequality enduring in other ways. A report last year from the Government Accountability Office found that women, despite acquiring more education, make up a higher proportion of low-wage workers than men. In a 2011 study contrasting men’s and women’s wages in the so-called creative class — a group that includes writers, health care workers, computer engineers, lawyers and scientists, and that is largely absent from this book — Richard Florida, a senior editor for The Atlantic and the author of “The Rise of the Creative Class,” discovered that women in these jobs “earn lower wages across the board, with the biggest disparities in the fields where they make up the largest share of the work force.”

At moments, “The Richer Sex” struck me as too breezily written. (As in: “Any number of experts concluded that women just aren’t into sex the way men are.”) In addition, some of Mundy’s conclusions seem unearned. Finding women worrying that men feel emasculated by them more than men actually feel that way, she suggests that these women are more invested in preserving conventional gender roles. That’s one explanation. But it could just as easily mean that the men in question didn’t want to tell a reporter they felt emasculated.

In a fascinating, scary section of the book, set in Asia — where in an industrialized nation like Japan rates of births and marriages have plummeted while the number of high-earning women has skyrocketed, partly because traditional notions of gender roles (in which women are subordinate) have remained the same — Mundy describes how matchmaking agencies are importing women from poorer Asian countries to pair with men in the richer ones. It’s a “dystopian vision of what the world will look like if attitudes fail to adapt to the new reality of women’s earnings,” she writes.

East or West, marriage is what many people want to know about when parsing the effects of women’s economic progress. “The Richer Sex” tells of happy breadwomen and stay-at-home dads, as well as numerous other arrangements possible in our anything-goes culture. But some of these unions recall scenes from Shakespearean comedies: dads prepare elaborate meals for their superwives, who neglect to thank them; breadwomen criticize boy toys for gaining weight. There’s nothing utopian about each sex adopting the other’s worst habits.

“In what way, if at all, do the sexes need each other now that the old economic bonds have been broken?” Mundy asks. It’s one of the best questions in the book, but she doesn’t provide a satisfying answer.

That may be because the answers can’t be fully explained by statistics. In Phyllis Rose’s brilliant study of Victorian marriage, “Parallel Lives,” she acknowledges that among the most important changes from the 19th century to the 20th was that “women can hold jobs, earn a living, own property.” But today, Rose wisely offers, “we place too much of a burden on our personal relationships. . . . Or perhaps the deep tendency of human nature to unhappiness is even harder to reach by legislation and technology than one might have thought.” Rose was writing a hundred years after the Victorians. It may take that long to comprehend the inner lives of breadwomen and the changes they bring to society.