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Who Wears the Pants


In the past few years, stay-at-home moms have come under fire from some of feminism's most hard-line mouthpieces.

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These mothers have been told that they're letting down the sisterhood, endangering the economy and -- most important -- undermining their own position. By failing to bring in at least half the family income, it is claimed, they have rendered themselves powerless in their own homes.

"Incomes give women power in their marriages," says Leslie Bennetts, a Vanity Fair writer and frequent "Today Show" guest. She has called the recent increase in mothers choosing to stay home a national tragedy. Linda Hirshman, the author of Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, has made her own rounds of female-targeted programming, appearing on "The View" and "Good Morning America" to recommend that young women "marry down." Why? Because money "usually accompanies power," she says, "and it enables the bearer to wield power, including within the family."

But as it turns out, wives don't need income to wield power in their marriages. And mothers don't have much reason to fear losing power if they're not bringing home an equal share of the bacon. A Pew Research Center study released a couple of weeks ago found that when it comes to decision making in the home, wives in a majority of cases either rule the roost or share power equally with their husbands, regardless of how much money the women earn.

Of the 1,260 men and women whom Pew pollsters surveyed over the summer, 43% responded that the woman makes most of the major decisions for the family, with 31% saying that the couple makes most decisions together. There was a small difference (within the margin of error) between the control exerted by wives who earn more than their husbands and those who earn less (46% versus 42%). But in both cases, women wielded sole decision-making power far more than men did, indicating that what "father knows best" is when to defer to mom.

Certainly that was what University of Iowa researchers found last year when they measured how couples negotiate conflict over household decisions. That study not only confirmed that men will usually go along with their wives but found that when couples do disagree, wives are far more persuasive than husbands in changing their spouses' minds.

The general consensus of sociologists is that, whereas a woman's marital satisfaction is dependent on a combination of economic, emotional and psychological realities, a man's marital satisfaction is most determined by one factor: how happy his wife is. When she is happy, he is.

According to the author of the study, David Vogel, what he and his team witnessed during recorded conversations wasn't a case of men tuning out when their wives started talking. Rather the researchers saw that when spouses engaged in debate, the women gained more ground than their husbands did. "[The women] were communicating more powerful messages and men were responding to those messages by agreeing," Mr. Vogel stated in a press release. The hypothesis that men hold more sway in relationships because they typically make more money didn't play out.

If a bigger paycheck did mean more power in any area of family decision making, the most likely one would be finances. But even there women are in charge, with more women than men in the Pew survey saying that they manage the couple's budget and wives in the Iowa study winning out over husbands in money disagreements. According to Pew, 45% of women said they hold the family purse strings compared to 37% of men. This despite two-thirds of the couples reporting that the man had the higher income. In fact, in recent years a substantial amount of research has shown that wives lose some of their household decision-making power when they earn more than their husbands, possibly because by spending fewer hours in the home they forfeit claims to certain household "expertise."

Scholarly interest in which spouse has more power in the home didn't start in earnest until the late 1960s, when women began entering the work force in significant numbers. But advertisers have been tracking the buying habits of American families since the 1940s. What they have found is that women made more of the household purchasing decisions before the advent of the feminist movement and that they make more of the purchasing decisions now, regardless of how big or small their paychecks are. These marketing surveys have been remarkably consistent, and they haven't changed much in the past 60 years.

To be fair, many of the scholarly studies' conclusions include a "final say" contingency -- many husbands claim that they have veto power when they feel very strongly about an issue. But consumer research shows that with the exception of what car to buy and when to buy it, men rarely claim strong enough feelings to override their wives.

"Across all decision-making realms, it tilts to the woman," noted Rich Morin, the Pew study's lead author. "I was surprised by the percentage of men who made none of the decisions in any of the areas. A significant percentage were just bystanders." Not surprisingly, one reason men say they are willing to acquiesce in their spouses' wishes is that their wives usually have greater knowledge of the day-to-day activities and needs of the home than they do. They trust their wives' choices the way they would any specialist's. But what is rather unexpected is the deeper (and much sweeter) reason men have for giving in to their wives: They want them to be happy, or at least they don't want to be responsible for making them unhappy.

The general consensus of sociologists is that, whereas a woman's marital satisfaction is dependent on a combination of economic, emotional and psychological realities, a man's marital satisfaction is most determined by one factor: how happy his wife is. When she is happy, he is. Working within this framework, most husbands are unwilling to dig in their heels on any issue unless they have a tremendous incentive to do so.

More than anything, this sentiment shows the silliness inherent in the brand of feminism that belittles full-time motherhood by constantly worrying about the family balance of power. In most American marriages there is no struggle for supremacy, because most of the husbands are all too happy to let their wives make, or at least share equally in, the decisions. This is an arrangement, according to the Pew poll, that satisfies the majority of couples. And if they're content with it, maybe feminists should be too.



Megan Basham. "Who Wears the Pants." The Wall Street Journal (October 10, 2008).

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Author

Megan Basham is in frequent demand as an on-air commentator and has written for numerous publications including The Weekly Standard and American Spectator. In addition, her work has been either referenced or excerpted in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Times, among others. She currently makes her home in Tucson, Arizona. Megan Basham is the author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide to Having It All.

Copyright © 2008 Wall Street Journal
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