By Michelle Conlin
A mere month into his relationship with Betsy Morgan, Chad Gifford found himself sitting nervously in her parents' dining room in Suffield, Conn., where the clan had gathered for Easter lunch. "So tell me, Chad," Betsy's banker father began, lowering the boom before the roast was served. "How much does an archaeologist earn?"
Gee, Mr. Morgan, not much. Today, 10 years later, Betsy, 34, and Chad, 36, are a happily married Manhattan couple. Betsy is a CBS executive who makes fat cash. Chad is an archaeologist who jaunts all over the world for digs that barely pay. She buys Prada shoes. He still owns clothes from high school. She burns water. He learned how to wash lettuce from a family friend--Julia Child. "We joke that I should make Chad a nonprofit," says Betsy.
The American family has something new going for it: the femmes who finance. After only three decades as members of the mainstream workforce, one in three wives now outearns her husband, up from one in five in 1980. Women with MBAs are doing even better: Nearly 60% have direct deposits bigger than their grooms'. Look for the ranks of the Ms. Breadwinners to rise even more, with 20% more women than men graduating from college and more women swelling the managerial ranks every year. Francine M. Deutsch, a psychology professor who studies gender roles and parenting at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., believes the trend will help erode the mommy tax--the heavy penalties women pay for having children--and help ease female poverty in old age.
The shift puts a twist on the term "purse strings." Researchers say the phenomenon is helping restructure marriage by creating mergers of complementary strengths, in which power is shared and spouses act as flexible allies who easily switch back and forth between roles. In essence, the family now has co-CEOs. "I expected to find these women lording it over their husbands," says Barbara Stanny, author of Secrets of Six-Figure Women. Stanny studied 150 women earning $100,000 or more. Nearly 70% earned more than their partners. But even though they raked in more cash--and often managed the family finances--Stanny found that most wanted interdependent relationships. "They all talked about how crucial their husbands were to success," says Stanny.
How well a couple fares depends on how successfully they share childrearing and what their pact was upon marriage. Resentment can flare if the breadwinner role was unexpectedly foisted on the wife by a layoff or sudden failure, says Breadwinner Wives and the Men They Marry author Randi Minetor. One PR executive financed her husband's new restaurant and ended up pleading her case in bankruptcy court with $960,000 of debt attached to her name. She lost the 2,200-square-foot house with the pool and her Audi A6. "I thought supporting his dream would get me to my dream--to be a stay-at-home mom," she says. Instead, she wound up a Saturn-driving single parent living in a condo with no credit.
Some husbands balk, threatened by their wives' new power. One recent Penn State University study found that men tend to become gloomier and more prone to headaches when their wives begin earning more. Still, the positives can be considerable if men have strong self-images, feel no need to compete with their wives, and don't have in-laws shaming them for their role. Men with breadwinner wives are often relieved to share the onus, especially given the enormous resources required to raise a family in an era of slippery job security. The role swap allows men to spend more time with their children and pursue passions that a megacareer would prohibit.
Indeed, the more economic power the wife has, the more men help out at home. Minetor found that 51% of men with breadwinner wives are the major housekeepers. Finally, more career women are getting the one thing they say they need most: a wife.
Conlin writes about working life issues from New York.