Beware: Sugar mamas, bitter singles

A study finding a growing number of higher-earning, better educated wives is twisted into bad news

Topics: Broadsheet, Coupling,

Beware: Sugar mamas, bitter singles

What hath the rise in women’s education, employment and wages wrought? Bitter single women, according to the New York Times. Gee, thanks a lot, feminism — yet one more thing you’ve screwed up for everyone everywhere. Oh, but wait a tic: The new Pew study covered by the article says no such thing. Shocking, I know: The Times turned a legitimate survey into a bogus trend piece.

The study takes a look at the current economics of marriage and finds that an increasing number of women are more educated and better paid than their husbands. Let’s be clear, though: That doesn’t mean that married women on the whole make more than married men; a whopping 78 percent of husbands make as much or more than their wives. It’s simply that the percentage of female breadwinners has grown dramatically. In 1970, 4 percent of husbands had wives who brought home more bacon than they did, and that figure rose to 22 percent in 2007. Scholastically, however, married women have outpaced married men: 19 percent of wives are less educated than their husbands, while 29 percent of husbands are less educated than their wives — but 53 percent of couples are similarly educated.

To represent these findings, the Times’ Sam Roberts picks a 28-year-old stylist who recently broke up with her “blue-collar” boyfriend because he was “insecure” about her success. “She and countless women like her are victims of a role reversal that is profoundly affecting the pool of potential marriage partners,” he reports. That’s odd, because the study suggests that women are more likely to marry a lesser educated, lower-earning partner — not that they ultimately find such a dynamic unnavigable. That might in fact be true — it’s easy to imagine that a pay and income disparity could cause conflict — but that isn’t what this study found. (It is, however, a “Sex and the City” episode, I believe.) As the article itself notes, ”women with college degrees are still more likely to marry today than less educated women.” 

Nonetheless, the piece continues with examples of smart and successful women who can’t find a mate — like a 38-year-old psychiatrist in New Jersey, a 35-year-old graduate of Columbia and Sarah Lawrence and a 50-something divorced business owner, who says that men “call you high maintenance if you look like you don’t need anyone to take care of you.” (Isn’t that the definition of low-maintenance?) The article’s kicker: The fashion stylist recounts how her best male friend told her, “You are confident, have good credit, own your own business, travel around the world and are self-sufficient. What man is going to want you?”

It’s an impressive sleight of hand. A study reveals how much gender dynamics have shifted since 1970, how we’re inching towards greater parity, and the Times turns it into yet another feminist uh-oh — we thought equality was gonna make things better, but now we’re just a bunch of lonely, high-powered ladies. A more representative portrait would be of married couples where both partners are similarly educated and work outside the home, and the husband earns as much or more than his wife. Even profiling a few of the growing number of married couples where the wife is more educated and better paid would be more relevant to the study (even though such couples do not make up the majority).

On a similarly misleading note, NPR summarizes the study as proof of the rise of the “sugar mama.” As Shakesville argues, that suggests inequality — that the growing number of better educated, higher-earning wives are taking care of, or being taken advantage of by, their husbands. It implies “an unequal, non-emotional, business-like relationship where one partner is little more than a bank account (or a dupe) and the other partner little more than a someone in search of that account,” she says. Nothing in this study suggests that is true. Besides, the real news here, as Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, tells the Washington Post, is a ”historical shift in the marriage bargain.” It used to be that “the husband earned the money and the wife took care of the home,” but “the new bargain is that both work, and they pool their incomes.” And that’s good news.

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>