Unequal Wages and Fragile Marriages—. The Countertendency
Women’s move into the economy, as a new urban peasantry, is the basic social revolution of our time. On the whole, it has increased the power of women. But at the same time, other realities lower women’s power. If women’s work outside the home increases their need for male help inside it, two facts—that women earn less and that marriages have become less stable—inhibit many women from pressing men to help more.
Today, women’s average earnings are only a bit higher, relative to men’s, than they were a hundred years ago; for the last hundred years women have earned 60 percent of what men earn; today it’s 70 percent. Given this difference, women still have more of an economic need for marriage than men do.
Meanwhile, what has changed is the extent to which a woman can depend on marriage. The divorce rate has risen steadily through the century and between 1970 and 1980, it actually doubled. Experts estimate that 49 percent of all men and women who marry today are likely to divorce sometime before they die. Whatever causes divorce, as the sociologist Terry Arendell points out in Divorce: Women and Children Last, the effect of it is much harder on women. Divorce usually pushes women down the class ladder— sometimes way down. According to Lenore Weitzman’s The Divorce Revolution, in the first year after divorce women experience a 73 percent loss in standard of living, whereas men experience a 42 percent gain. Most divorced men provide surprisingly little financial support for their children. According to the Bureau of the Census in 1985, 81 percent of divorced fathers and 66 percent of separated fathers have court orders to pay child support. Twenty percent of these fathers fully comply with the court order; 15 percent pay irregularly. (And how much child support a father pays is not related to his capacity to pay.)3
Most divorced fathers have distressingly little emotional contact with their children as well. According to the National Childrens Survey conducted in 1976 and 1981 and analyzed by sociologist Frank Furstenberg, 23 percent of all divorced fathers had no contact with their children during the past five years. Another 20 percent had no contact with their children in the past one year. Only 26 percent had seen their children for a total of three weeks in the last year. Two-thirds of fathers divorced for over ten years had not had any contact with their children in more than a year. In line with this finding, in her study of divorced women, sociologist Terry Arendell found that over half of the children of divorced women had not received a visit or a call from their father in the last year; 35 percent of these children had not seen their fathers in the last five years. Whatever job they took, these women would also have be to the most important person in their childrens lives.
Arendell also found that many middle-class divorced women didn’t feel they could turn to their parents or other family members for help. Thus, divorced women are often left in charge of the children, are relatively poorer—often just plain poor—and often lack social and emotional support. The frightening truth is that once pushed down the class ladder, many divorced women and their children get stuck there. This is because they have difficulty finding jobs with adequate pay and because most of them have primary responsibility for the children. Also, fewer divorced women than men remarry, especially older women with children.
While womens entrance into the economy has increased womens power, the growing instability of marriage creates an anonymous, individualistic “modern” form of oppression. In the nineteenth century, before a woman could own property in her own name, get a higher education, enter a profession, or vote, she might have been trapped in a marriage to an overbearing husband and have had nowhere else to go. Now we call that woman “oppressed.” Yet today, when a woman can legally own property, vote, get an education, work at a job, and leave an oppressive marriage, she walks out into an apparently “autonomous” and “free” form of inequality.
Divorce is an undoing of an economic arrangement between men and women. Reduced to its economic bare bones, traditional marriage has been what the economist, Heidi Hartmann, calls a “mechanism of redistribution”: in a sense, men have “paid” women to rear their children and tend their home. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, unions fought for and won a higher “family wage” for male workers, on the grounds that men needed the money more than women in order to support wives and children. At that time it seemed reasonable that men should get first crack at the better-paying jobs, and even earn more than women for doing the same work because “women didn’t support a family.” Since this arrangement put men and women in vastly unequal financial positions, the way most women got a living wage was to marry. In the job market, the relation between men and women was as the upper to the lower class in society. Marriage was the economic equalizer.
But as marriage—this “mechanism of redistribution”—has grown more fragile, most divorced men still earn a “family wage” but no longer “redistribute” it to their children or the ex-wife who cares for them. The media stresses how men and women both have the freedom to choose divorce, and surely this choice is an important advance. But at the same time, the more men and women live outside marriage, the more they divide into separate classes. Three factors—the belief that child care is female work, the failure of ex-husbands to support their children, and higher male wages at work—have taken the economic rug from under that half of married women who divorce.
Formerly, many men dominated women within marriage. Now, despite a much wider acceptance of women as workers, men dominate women anonymously outside of marriage. Patriarchy has not disappeared; it has changed form. In the old form, women were forced to obey an overbearing husband in the privacy of an unjust marriage. In the new form, the working single mother is economically abandoned by her former husband and ignored by a patriarchal society at large. In the old form, women were limited to the home but economically maintained there. In the new form, the divorced woman does the work of the home but ismt paid for it.
The “modern” oppression of women outside of marriage has also reduced the power of women inside marriage as well. Married women are becoming more cautious, more like NinaTanagawa or Nancy Holt who look at their divorcing friends and say to themselves, “Put up with the extra month a year or divorce? Г11 put up with it.”
The influx of women into paid work and her increased power raise a womans aspirations and hopes for equal treatment at home. Her lower wage and status at work and the threat of divorce reduce what she presses for and actually expects.
The “new” oppression outside marriage thus creates a tacit threat to women inside marriage. Married women say to themselves, “I don’t want what happened to her to happen to me.” Among the working parents I talked with in this study, both men and women expressed sympathy for the emotional pain of divorcing friends. But women told these stories with more anxious interest, and more empathy for the plight of the divorced woman. For example, one evening at the dinner table, a mother of two who worked at word processing had this exchange with her husband, a store manager, and her former boss, as they were telling me about the divorce of a friend:
A good friend of mine worked as a secretary for six years, putting her husband through dental school. She worked like a dog, did all the housework, and they had a child too. She didn’t really worry about getting ahead at the job because she figured they would rely on his work and she would stop working as soon as he set up practice. Well, he went and fell in love with another woman and divorced his wife. Now she’s still working as a secretary and raising their little boy. Now he’s got two other children by the other woman.
Her husband commented: “Thats true, but she was hard to get along with, and she had a drinking problem. She complained a lot. Гт not saying it wasn’t hard for her, but there’s another side to the story.”
The wife answered, surprised, “Yeah, but she was had! Don’t you think?”
Her husband said, “Oh, I don’t know. They both have a case.” Earlier in our century, the most important cautionary tale for women was of a woman who “fell” from chastity before marriage and came to a bad end because no man would have her. Among working mothers of small children, and especially the more traditional of them, the modern version of the “fallen woman” is the divo^e. Of course, not all women fear the prospect of divorce— for example, not Anita Judson. But the cases of Nancy Holt and Nina Tanagawa are also telling because their fear of divorce led them to stop asking for more help in the second shift. When life is made to seem so cold “out there,” a woman may try to get warm inside an unequal marriage.
All in all, then, two forces are at work: new economic opportunities and needs, which draw women to paid work and which put pressure on men to share the second shift. These forces lend appeal to an egalitarian gender ideology and to strategies of renegotiating the division of labor at home. But other forces—the wage gap between men and women, and the effect on women of the rising rate of divorce—work in the opposite direction. These forces lend appeal to a traditional gender ideology and to the female strategy of the supermom and to the male strategy of resistance to sharing. All the couples I studied were exposed to both these sets of forces, though they differed in their degree of exposure: some women were more economically dependent than others; some were in more precarious marriages. It is the background of this “modern” oppression that made many women, like Carol Alston or Ann Myerson, feel very grateful for the men they had, even when they didn’t share the whole strain of the second shift.