What Men Want
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The traditional wife is back in vogue – at least in the media.
Critics hector Teresa Heinz for not gazing adoringly enough at her husband John Kerry. The New York Times' Maureen Dowd complains, "Her attention rarely seems to light on her husband when she's at a microphone with him."
And, of course, there's the much-written-about revival of "The Stepford Wives," in which submissive, robot-like women cater to their husbands' every whim.
But, in fact, do men want robotic, accommodating women? Do women want older "provider" males who will support them in a '50s country-club lifestyle? Do women put their marital happiness at risk when they earn a good paycheck?
No, no and no are the answers.
A number of studies published in the past few years have found that while "Stepford" may be good for a few chuckles in a movie, it's far off the mark as far as most men and women are concerned.
Education Adds to Allure
In fact, if the movie were realistic, the husbands would not be turning their wives into robots. They'd be helping them finance their way through grad school. Research shows that today, the more education a woman has, the more likely she is to be married and the less likely she is to be attracted to a man on the basis of his earning power. In fact, mate selection is now more of a two-way street and men, in turn, are freer from the financial pressures that used to be the primary qualifier for any bachelor seeking a wife.
Once upon a time it was said that "men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses." In other words, a woman who was too smart and too educated would be a flop at finding a husband. That has all changed. Now, men are becoming more likely to select as mates women who have finished their education, forsaking youth for earning capacity. Men today are not prisoners of past behavior by males. They are much more flexible.
Paychecks Make Marriage Work
Men's mate preferences change when situations change. Today, a woman's paycheck may be more appealing than her perfectly baked brownies. Men's wages have been stagnant or declining for 15 years now, and the "family wage" of the industrial age has been replaced by the job insecurity of the global age.
Most couples require two paychecks to stay in the middle class, a math lesson that is not lost on men.
Judge Richard Posner, author of a book on the economics of mating, Sex and Reason , suggests, "economics is not divorced from mate selection. People change their behavior as costs and benefits change."
J-Date, the popular online national dating service, automatically requests information on women's incomes, because their male clients ask for it.
Mary Balfour, director of Drawing Down the Moon, an executive dating agency based in London, says that college-educated and professional men in their 20s and 30s now want women who match their intellect and earning abilities. "It is only those in their 50s and 60s who tend to take a deep breath when introduced to powerful women," she says.
Many Wives Earn More
Today, more than 42 percent of married women in the United States earn more than their husbands.
According to Stepford theory, these couples should be sexually frustrated (especially the men) and highly divorce-prone. Not so.
Unlike the threatened Stepford men, modern husbands are not turned off by women who can succeed at work. Women's earning power does not appear to get in the way of pleasure. Psychologist Janet Hyde conducted a yearlong (1996) longitudinal study of 500 couples. She found that couples who said they had the most rewarding intimate lives were those in which both partners worked and experienced high rewards from their jobs.
If they were in the real world, married couples in Stepford would find they were paying a huge financial penalty for their hubby-earns-most-and-best approach. The median household income gap between single-earner and dual-earner couples has been steadily widening and in 2001 the two-income couples earned a staggering $30,500 more, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Despite movies such as the "The First Wives' Club" and the emergence of "displaced homemaker" as a job-seeking category to which a slight sense of desperation adheres, we still tend to think that the traditional homemaker, safely behind her white picket fence, has the most stable marriage. Not so.
A 1999 nationally representative sample – meaning it mirrors the population as a whole – of 4,405 couples found that divorce was more likely when a woman has no earnings than when she brings home a paycheck. In particular, the marriage of a woman with no earnings was more than twice as likely to dissolve as that of a woman who had a paycheck.
Having no income can be risky for a woman, and not just in the stability of her marriage. A wife who drops out of the work force and stays out for a long time will never make up that lost economic ground, even if she returns to the work force. Worse, if her husband's income starts to slip – an all too common event these days – the couple can be in trouble, both financially and emotionally.
Still, the media can't get over their infatuation with traditional women, whether the subject is the wives of presidential candidates, women at work, or the Stepford movie. The only antidote is correct information, which is sadly in short supply.
Dr. Rosalind Chait Barnett of Brandeis and Caryl Rivers of Boston University are the authors of the forthcoming "Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children and Our Jobs," to be published Aug. 17 by Basic Books.