By Christine R. Schwartz
Associate Professor of Sociology
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Husbands and wives who share similar levels of education now enjoy a lower risk of divorce than those in which husbands have more education—a trend consistent with a shift toward egalitarian marriages.
The prevailing view for the past several years has been that the gender revolution stalled in the 1990s. In that decade, there was a flattening or slowdown in many trends associated with progress toward gender equality: women’s labor force participation, women’s entry into male-dominated occupations, reductions of the gender pay gap, and egalitarian gender attitudes.
But recent research throws doubt on the conclusion that the gender revolution has stalled. Through the 1990s and 2000s, for example, one trend that did not slow was women’s increasing educational advantage over men.
This has created a major shift in marriage patterns: Men once tended to have more education than their wives, but it is now wives who have the educational advantage. This change in spouses’ relative education has been large: Only about 35 percent of couples married in the 1950s who had different levels of education were ones in which wives had more education than their husbands. For couples marrying in the late 2000s, the share had risen to over 60 percent.
And during the 1990s – the era of the stall in many trends – couples forming these marriages became less divorce prone. Up until the 1980s, marriages in which wives had more education than their husbands were more likely than other couples to end in divorce. But among marriages formed in the 1990s and later, this was no longer the case. Instead, couples in which wives have more education than their husbands are no longer at higher risk of divorce. And husbands and wives who share similar levels of education now enjoy a lower risk of divorce than those in which husbands have more education. This trend is consistent with an ongoing shift away from the breadwinner-homemaker model of marriage toward an egalitarian model.
Data on attitudes also suggest people are increasingly tolerant of relationships in which women have higher status than their male partners. In 1997, a Pew Research study found that 40 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “It’s generally better for a marriage if the husband earns more than his wife.” That percentage had dropped to just 28 percent in 2013. In addition, as the new paper by Cotter et al. shows, the 1990s may have been a temporary rather than a long-term stall in egalitarian gender attitudes.
But these findings provide no basis for complacency. Despite continued upward trends in some markers of gender equity, progress in one realm can be offset by the shoring up of male dominance in other realms. For instance, wives who outearn their husbands may compensate by deferring more to their husbands’ authority and doing more housework. (However, other research casts doubt on the finding that wives do more housework when they outearn their husbands, so the jury is still out on the issue.)
Finally, it is possible that, while wives’ educational advantage no longer appears to be associated with divorce, wives’ higher earnings are, despite the growing number of people who now accept the latter arrangement, in principle. Perhaps couples are now willing to ignore a wife’s educational advantage as long as her husband still earns more. In other words, the “line in the sand” that triggers a threat to men’s gender identity may have moved from a wife’s educational advantage to her earnings advantage. Research on the relationship between spouses’ relative earnings and divorce has been primarily based on marriages formed in the 1980s and earlier, and thus whether there has been change or stability in these relationships remains to be seen. But the attitudinal shifts in men’s stated tolerance for these relationships suggests that even the “line in the sand” for wives who outearn their husbands may be shifting.
The new findings suggest that the evidence for a stalled revolution may not be as uniform as it once seemed, but why the trends vary calls out for explanation. Social scientists are still exploring why some trends move together and others do not and what changes represent real progress toward gender equality and which are offset by compensation in other areas.
Cotter, David A., Joan M. Hermsen, and Reeve Vanneman 2011. “The End of the Gender Revolution? Gender Role Attitudes from 1977 to 2008.” American Journal of Sociology 117:259-289.
England, Paula. 2010. “The Gender Revolution: Uneven and Stalled.” Gender & Society 24:149-166.
Gupta, Sanjiv. 2007. “Autonomy, Dependence, or Display? The Relationship Between Married Women’s Earnings and Housework.” Journal of Marriage and Family 69(2):399-417.
Ridgeway, Cecilia L. 2011. Framed by Gender: How Gender Inequality Persists in the Modern World. New York: Oxford University Press.
Schwartz, Christine R. and Hon Han. 2014. “The Reversal of the Gender Gap in Education and Trends in Marital Dissolution.” American Sociological Review. 79(4):605-629.
Tichenor, Veronica Jaris. 2005. Earning More and Getting Less. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Wang, Wendy, Kim Parker, and Paul Taylor. 2013. “Breadwinner Moms.” Pew Research Center, Washington D.C. (May 29) http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2013/05/Breadwinner_moms_final.pdf, accessed 7/21/2014.