NY Times gets it almost right

By Amanda Marcotte
Saturday, January 23, 2010 19:59 EDT
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Round two on the NY Times struggling with the shocking! information that some men will actually allow themselves to be married to a woman with more education or income. Round one featured blatant denial—even though the research indicated that the number of marriages where women make more is rising, the Times ran a story that featured a bunch of single women swearing that they can’t get a date because they’re too smart or rich. I don’t know if round two was run in reaction to a bunch of bloggers pointing out that stories about these marriages might actually be a better illustration of a story about these marriages, but that’s what they did this time out. Subsequently, the story is much better. It’s interesting to read about how people who buck the gender roles they were brought up with struggle sometimes not to lapse into roles they’ve decided don’t work for them. It makes sense that many women unintentionally sabotage the situation by trying to exert control over their husbands’ domestic choices, and how you really have to not do that if you want the situation to work. And that even well-meaning men have trouble shaking off thousands of cultural messages about how you’re emasculated if your wife makes more money than you.

But even though writer Tara Parker-Pope seems to have her head screwed on straight, she does drop a doozy of a statistic that will probably be the thing that people looking to bash working women will latch on to:

Kristen W. Springer, a sociologist at Rutgers, has found that among men in their 50s, having a wife who earns more money is associated with poorer health. Among the highest earning couples in her study, a husband who earns less than his wife is 60 percent less likely to be in good health compared with men who earn more than their wives.

This is listed in the section on men’s struggles with changing gender roles. The implication is clear—that the income difference probably has some sort of causal relationship to the health problems. But there are so many other possibilities! The first thing that came to mind for me is that men with poor health might face more difficulties at work that make it hard for them to climb up the income ladder. The mere fact of having protections for disabled people, for instance, doesn’t mean that people with disabilities in our society don’t face a lot of obstacles in their careers that negatively impact their income. “Poor health” folds in a lot of disabilities, and that alone could account for the difference. Especially when you’re looking at such dramatic differences like that.

I’m just hypothesizing, of course. I looked around for more on the study she cited, but couldn’t find it. Springer has done a lot of research on marriage, gender, and health, and it was hard to comb through it for this specific study. Whatever the actual relationship between women earning more and men being in poorer health is might not established, or they might have a very good explanation that’s not alluded to in this story. But the larger point is that when you drop a statistic like that, you imply a causation chain that may not be there. Most people, when reading that sentence, will think that women earning more money causes men to be in poorer health, and that men should avoid marriage to higher-earning women out of self-preservation. When in fact, what we might be seeing is the opposite—men with poor health whose burdens are lightened because they are married to women who bring more money into the household, and may even cover their health insurance.

I don’t want to give a bad impression of the overall article, which I found sound and nuanced. I think it’s useful to understand that it’s not like most people set out to have marriages where women earn more or men earn more, but that who earns more in a marriage is usually just a matter of outside forces, personal choices, and happenstance. And that what feminism has created is the chance for women to have more opportunities, and marriages are changing as a result. The takeaway message for feminism is sound, which is that if we want more egalitarian marriages, the most important step is creating the social circumstances that make that possible—equal pay being one of the most important factors.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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