This fall I read “The Richer Sex” by Liza Mundy. I came away agreeing with many of her points, but disagreeing on a fundamental level with her main argument.
Mundy describes how women, more and more, are becoming the main breadwinners in their families. She talks about how being a breadwinner shifts women’s power economically. Over and over again she describes women that are out working in, what I can only describe as a masculinized public sphere, and their boyfriends/husbands are busy at home, masculinizing the private sphere with giant grills, food blogs that are building grounds for books deals and man caves.
She makes an equation. Women + making more money = more economic freedom. I ask: how does this really change social expectations of women’s work?
Some women she interviewed for the book were reluctant to get comfortable with their breadwinner status. Some women broke up with their boyfriends/husband because of extreme jealously. Their husbands/boyfriends were uncomfortable with their girlfriends/wives earning more. Many of them took this discomfort out on their girlfriends/wives.
Here’s where I think Mundy could go deeper, beyond women + more money = more economic freedom. It does, but it doesn’t.
Firstly, the answer to women’s economic freedom isn’t a masculinized private sphere. So, women leave the home for the masculinized public sphere—wearing the suit (a stereotypical male uniform) and leave men at home looking after the kids and while doing so, they turn the private sphere into a masculinized space? How does more masculinized spaces add up to more freedom for women? What benefit does a masculinized private sphere bring to gender equality? We all, to some degree, adhere to proscribed gender roles. As women, we may borrow stereotypical masculine traits to get by in a world designed for men, but doing so will ultimately not bring about equality.It still traps both genders in stereotypes and unrealistic expectations.
Let’s paint Mundy’s new picture: Western women running around like faux men in the public sphere and Western men running around like men in the private sphere. Where did femininity go? It’s clearly not being seen as powerful.
Women are indeed making more money and becoming very successful, but I don’t see the increase in earnings being reflected as an increase in power. Great, we can buy more stuff. Yeah for consumer capitalism. One more stick of lipstick doesn’t make me feel powerful. Look at the Forbes top 100 women list. It’s based on income not political or social power. What does this say about how power and influence are gendered?
Secondly, the other issue I take up with Mundy is her lack of historical accuracy. She paints a rosy picture of how families used to be in America. Imagine the “leave it to beaver” type family. Mundy completely neglects Stephanie Coontz’s book “The way we never really were” in her analysis. Coontz writes about the mythical four person family: a white mom and dad with two kids (a boy and a girl) living in the suburbs with a white picket fence. Mundy sites other books by Coontz, but does not include that particular title. Why? I can only guess that it would poke holes in her argument.
I would like to see more gender analysis in the book. Hopefully she’ll come out with a follow up. In the mean time, I recommend reading it from your local library, but don’t take to heart every word.
Note: Mundy does not seriously consider LGBTQ issues in her book.