The More Powerful Women Get (in the Office) the Less Powerful Women Get (in the Bedroom)…

Pew research released yesterday finds a “gender reversal” in career aspirations. Sixty-six percent (66%) of women between the ages of 18 and 34 now rate a “high-paying career” as one of the most important goals, compared to 59% of men.

Both men and women ranked marriage and parenthood as more important goals than work, but the report also notes a disjuncture between these stated values and actual rates of marriage.

Almost half of marriages today are dual-career.  Seventy percent (70%) of women with children at home are in the workforce, and a larger number of wives are primary breadwinners. In Marriage Confidential (out in paperback in May), I discuss the “workhorse wife” who is the sole breadwinner for the family.

The survey’s adjective, “high-paying,” seems significant. I’m not sure how deliberately they chose that word, but when I was younger, I wouldn’t have rated a high-paying career as important.  However, I would have rated a fulfilling, creative, and socially valuable career as extremely important.

My guess is that younger women are valuing high compensation because they’re envisioning a future of self-sufficiency. They’re entertaining the possibility that they won’t get married, won’t want to get married, or that they might join the growing ranks of well-compensated professional women who are single mothers by choice.

In fact, the nostalgia for “traditional marriage” –which has found a voice in legislative agendas at the state and federal level (See: War on Women)— might make the institution even less appealing to a young, unmarried woman with modern values about relationships, sex and career.  

Why would she want to join the institution if all the social conservative agendas succeeded and their values prevailed? It would be an institution of non-recreational sex for procreation; revived gender role scripts of stay-at-home moms and working dad; no access to birth control through insurance; illegalized abortion; diminished domestic violence protections (The Violence Against Women Act might not get renewed); a roll-back of no-fault divorce laws; and attorneys who campaign for “fathers’ rights” to have sole custody and/or to pay no support to wives who initiate divorce.

To say nothing of the guilt-tripping about family that women do to themselves, and to each other.

It doesn’t sound enticing, for men or women.  Maybe that “high-paying career” woman would rather head to the sperm bank than to the chapel, or forego both marriage and parenthood entirely.

My second reaction to this Pew finding is to juxtapose women’s growing economic clout with the political War on Women.

As these women are out doing it all, we’ve simultaneously got an effort to reverse some of the most basic gains of the 20th century in women’s reproductive choices, their sexual agency, and remedies against sexual and domestic violence.

It seems counterintuitive. Typically in America, where money, hard work, and free market dynamics are revered, individuals who control the purse strings, earn money, and succeed as breadwinners gain more cultural authority in other areas of life, not less.

Middle-class husbands of the 1950s had authority. “Father Knows Best,” and all of that. They were deferred to as responsible parties, and breadwinners. They also had stay-at-home wives who, by the book, fussed over them, made them martinis, soothed their furrowed brows, raised the children and then ushered them discreetly off stage when they annoyed the hard-working dad too much.

Somehow it hasn’t played out that way for breadwinning wives.  

Instead, as women are gaining more economic clout they seem to be losing sexual and personal clout.

 At a time when women who value “high-paying careers” are out-competing men, supporting  their husbands and children, they’re threatened with a political agenda that would infantilize and disempower them in their reproductive, sexual, and marital lives.  

And it’s important to qualify that this isn’t just due to a “war on women.” As I’ve said before, there’s also a conflict among women. The more men and women achieve similar lifestyles, the more lifestyle differences we see among women, based on class, culture, or creed.

Socially conservative women carry placards about the Pro-Life Generation and against birth control at every rally. It’s just that they never truly get seen, or remarked upon, so we keep talking as if it’s a battle of the sexes with men tidily arrayed on one side and generic “women” on the other.

It fits better on bumper stickers that way.

I’d like things to be that clear-cut, too. Unfortunately, they aren’t.  

Whatever the case, the split-screen of women as powerful Supermen in the workforce and imperiled Clark Kents in their sexual and reproductive lives doesn’t strike me as a coincidence.  

If highly-paid career women controlled both their own purses and their own bodies, who knows how dangerously powerful they might get.

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