Attack of the alpha wives

Why are we hearing so much about the old news of higher-earning women?

By Tracy Clark-Flory
Published January 25, 2010 10:26PM (EST)

The New York Times sure is high on "alpha wives." Including its Web site, the Gray Lady had not one, not two, but three features sparked by a Pew study on the economics of marriage; and that's not counting the two additional pieces it ran early last week. I like a good trend piece as much as the next gal, but five -- fi-freaking-ive? -- on the very same trend within the space of just a week? You would think researchers discovered overnight that married women had dominated the workforce and dramatically reversed the income gap (they didn't). As Salon's Rebecca Traister put it to me in an e-mail, the Times "behaves as if it has stumbled on a tribe of radical emasculators who want to shred world order."

Before we go any further, it's worth taking a no-nonsense look at what the Times has stumbled upon. As I wrote last week, this much-talked-about research shows a growing number of women are more educated and better paid than their husbands. What that means is a larger percentage of married couples have a female breadwinner (22 percent) than in 1970 (7 percent). What that doesn't mean is that married women on the whole are making more than their hubbies; it's still quite the opposite. 

Despite the Times' initial response to the study -- a feature about the sad state of  bitter high-earning women who can't find a man -- writer Tara Parker-Pope reported Sunday that, hey, things actually aren't so bad! After surveying the relevant evidence, she concludes that these shifting gender roles have actually "had a positive effect, contributing to lower divorce rates and happier unions." She explains that "financially independent women can be more selective in marrying," thus they have better-suited, longer-lasting relationships. 

In stark contrast to Parker-Pope's article, however, the Times published a controversial Op-Ed by Sandra Tsing Loh about her predicament as one of these infamous alpha women living with a lower-earning male partner. Lately, Tsing Loh has begun entertaining fantasies of having a traditional housewife, because "co-working" and "co-homemaking" destroys "the clear delineation of spheres," she argues. Housework is no longer the woman's domain any more than it is the man's. "The work I do at home is no longer a gift, but the labor of a mediocre colleague whose performance could be better." 

In my e-mail in box alone, her lament of the lost "Art of the Wife" has inspired a rainbow of, um, vivid responses -- some thought it smart satire, others found it maddeningly retro, but it resonated on some level with all. Who among us doesn't want to be greeted with a stiff drink after a long day's work? Who doesn't crave clean dishes in the cupboard, a roast in the oven and a foot massage? As so many of us are working longer and longer hours for less -- either to make up for the absence of our recently laid-off co-workers or to prove our own indispensability -- it's increasingly tempting to fantasize about having a maid, chef, personal assistant and masseuse all in one. (I bought an iPhone instead.)

Working mothers have long been calling for a change, a shift -- something to make "having it all" more tenable. But it isn't just working moms who are trying to find a work-life balance; we all are, and it's an increasingly challenging feat. A growing number of us may be abandoning the old domestic model, but the new model is still under construction; and in such dark and stormy times, it's grimly satisfying to joke about taking shelter in that decaying traditionalist structure. Tsing Loh does; so have I and many of my friends, often with a misnomered Happy Hour drink in hand.

The truth is, the Pew study only reinforced something we've known for some time now -- that a growing number of women (albeit still the minority) are out-earning men. But it gives us something new onto which we can project our cultural anxiety and economic terror. The Times' manages to keep us engaged by stoking the flame of fear at the same time that it assures us that everything is gonna be just fine. It strikes me that is just what many of us want, or are at least vulnerable to, during these uncertain times -- having our worry both validated and assuaged, again and again.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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