The False Debate on Working Women

Tuesday , September 12, 2006

By Wendy McElroy


Does a working wife damage a husband's health and happiness through her proclivity for adultery that may lead to divorce? editor Michael Noer answered 'yes' in an Aug. 22 article entitled "Don't Marry Career Women."

Fury ignited the blogosphere. Forbes temporarily yanked the article in order to re-format it as one-half of a debate on "Careers and Marriage" with Forbes editor Elizabeth Corcoran providing the counter "Don't Marry A Lazy Man."

Unfortunately, Corcoran did not dispute the studies and statistics with which Noer packed his punch. That's a shame. Because Noer's slap at working women is a sloppy opinion piece that tries to pass as fact.

Deconstruction is in order.

Before doing so, however, it should be noted that the working woman versus housewife debate is misleading on several levels.

First, it is often a competition between two antiquated ideals of women. Many liberals seem stuck in a rerun of the famous '70s perfume commercial in which a woman can "bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never ever let you forget you're a man." Many conservatives seem stuck in the 1950s when staying at home was a viable economic option for many if not most women.

The 21st century women I know don't resemble either snapshot. Being a housewife is not an option; they work to exhaustion because they love their families, not because they are neglectful. They work so their children can live in a good neighborhood and attend university; they support elderly and ailing relatives; they work because bills would not be paid otherwise.

Even the terms in which Noer presents the debate is misleading. For example, Noer distinguishes 'career women' from 'working women' (whom he does not address) by three factors. Two of them: career women earn more than $30,000 a year and work more than 35 hours a week. Since the median income for full-time working women in 2004 was $31,223, I have abandoned his distinction as being without value. Noer is simply talking about full-time working women.

For separate reasons, I also disregard the third distinguishing factor used by Noer: a college education, which he associates with marital discord because "highly educated people are more likely to have had extra-marital sex."

If this is true, it applies equally to men; career women should not be singled out as the problem.

Nevertheless, that's exactly what Noer does. True, he uses qualifiers like "if many social scientists are to be believed" and makes admissions like "the link between work, women and divorce rates is complex and controversial."

But, then, he plunges forward.

The first study which Noer references is from "Social Forces," which he describes as "a research journal." This study found that "women—even those with a 'feminist' outlook—are happier when their husband is the primary breadwinner."

The unnamed study to which Noer refers is What's Love Got To Do With It? There, sociologists W.Bradford Wilcox and Steven L. Nock of the University of Virginia analyzed data from 5,000 couples in the National Survey of Families and Households conducted in the 1990s.

Wilcox and Nock found that housewives were slightly more content in their marriages than working wives; the difference was quite small. Indeed, Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman reported that when "sociologist Scott Coltrane of the University of California at Riverside" tweaked the same data, he found "no difference at all."

Moreover, Wilcox and Nock explained the difference, "Wives who work full time and have more progressive attitudes are more likely to be unhappy with the division of housework. And that spells trouble for them and their marriages."

Their explanation is a far cry from the adulteries to which Noer points.

The vagueness of unnamed sources continues through Noer's remaining argument. For example, he writes, "If a host of studies are to be believed, marrying these women is asking for trouble…Journal of Marriage and Family, 2003)."

In tracking down Noer's sources, the website Mother's Movement Online assembled the abstracts of those Noer named or which fit the description he provided. The abstract of one such study — "Changes in Wives' Income" from the Journal of Marriage and Family (2001) — states, "The likelihood of divorce is not significantly affected by increases in married women's income."

Noer concludes his piece with what seems to be a slap at marriage itself. He acknowledges that "a good marriage is associated with a higher income, a longer, healthier life and better-adjusted kids." But then he adds, "it's important not to confuse correlation with causation. In other words, just because married folks are healthier than single people, it doesn't mean that marriage is causing the health gains."

Yet Noer's entire argument is premised on confusing correlation with causation. He argues that a working wife causes an unhappy marriage when, in fact, no data even establishes or measures a wife's career as an independent factor in the breakdown of marriages.

Moreover, in taking a swipe at marriage, Noer once again ignores contradictory data. One of the most interesting reports on marriage was the recent (February 2006) Pew Research Center survey "Are We Happy Yet?" Pew interviewed a nationally representative sample of over 3,000 adults. Among its findings: married people were much more likely (43 percent) to be "very happy" than single people (24 percent). The survey made no reference to a "good marriage" but merely to the salutary affect of marriage itself.

And, oh yes…working women were found to be slightly happier than those who were unemployed.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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