The Veto Power of the Purse


The Two-Paycheck Marriage, by Caroline Bird, New York: Rawson, Wade, 1979, 305 pp., $8.95. New York: Pocket Books, 1980, 305 pp., $2.75.

The Two-Career Couple, by Francine S. Hall and Douglas T. Hall, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1979, 259 pp., $5.95.

The Changing Life of the Corporate Wife, by Maryanne Vandervelde, New York: Atheneum, 1979, 307 pp., $12.95.

On one seemingly ordinary day in 1979, a history-making event occurred: working wives outnumbered homemakers for the first time in the history of the United States. Add to this the fact that more and more people are choosing to live together with the presumption that each continue working, and the number of working "wives" jumps.

What does this all mean? That we have been involved in a subtle revolution that is changing the terms—and issues—of everyday life in a way that no politically induced, legally enforced mandate ever could. Things will never be the way they were between Mom and Dad—it's the permanence of the change that's beginning to dawn on us. "Until the decade of the 1970s," Caroline Bird writes, "most working wives regarded themselves as either temporary or exceptional. The conventions of work, home, and marriage were postponed rather than questioned. 'Some day' they'd settle down to the norms of their parents—or the equally mythic anti-norms proposed during the 1960s. This is the way it used to be. Now, in the 1970s, women are breaking new ground."

And the ground-breaking that these three books have in common is the domestic. It is women's roles, after all, that have changed and are causing these dislocations. There are no models to follow, no patterns to slip into: Who does the laundry? Who cleans the toilet? Who burps the baby? When the man no longer holds the veto power of the purse—when the woman is even the major breadwinner in an increasing number of cases—how do the thousand small and big questions get decided? And the problem is most difficult for the older generation, the men and women bred with the expectations and roles of a now-obsolete world—how do they make the transition, if at all?

There has recently arrived a plethora of books that attempt to deal with these questions, and we can expect to see a whole lot more. These three are fairly typical of the range. Bird's book is the most comprehensive, describing how America became a nation of two-paycheck marriages, then going on to explore the impact of such households on "marriage, home, money management, and children." A subsequent section, "Lifestyle Pioneers," examines how some couples are dealing with the options offered by a two-paycheck marriage, as well as related new options, such as the now-acceptable choice of remaining childless. Bird uses the last portion of the book to outline what she sees as the most probable future in terms of new kinds of families and work styles.

While compelling reading overall, the book is undermined by Bird's citation of typical liberal hogwash to solve certain problems. She advocates federally financed childcare centers—heaven forbid—as well as predicting that "professionals will sell Congress on funding direct services to children, which, unlike the public school system, will be available to all, regardless of need. All children, for instance, will get their teeth straightened at public expense. All will get a chance to go to summer camp. Testing, counseling, and medical care will be available to all alike." While Bird is commendable for advocating that children's rights be recognized, she would transfer the parents' authority to the State rather than trusting that children can control their own lives and learn from their mistakes.

Fortunately, such incursions into politics are rare, and Bird has much more sense when she writes on the sociological and economic implications of the two-paycheck marriage. The book's thesis is largely based on facts culled from a reader survey printed in the November 1976 issue of Family Circle magazine; a random 5,000 of the 30,000 responses received were analyzed. Bird did further research on wives returning to the labor force, as well as relying on several more studies.

The Two-Career Couple, in comparison, is written by a two-career couple and is a practical workbook on how to deal with the immediate and long-term situations that confront such couples. Fortunately, it tackles the issue from the premise that individuals (and therefore couples) are or can be in control of their lives and that individual choices and values are what matter. On that basis, it helps provide the couple with a framework for deciding what is possible, what is important, and when to give up (almost never). For couples really in the lurch, it provides such items as a checklist on "Choice 1: If I accept the (job) transfer…" and shows how to rate possible outcomes in terms of value and probability.

Perhaps the area most fraught with ghosts of power- and role-playing is housework, and the Halls obligingly provide some hints about how to survive the tyranny of domestic chores, including "giving up some of the ego needs that we satisfy by keeping a role all to ourselves." As the Halls explain, "We all want to feel indispensable, so when a spouse proves just as capable of sewing or cleaning or juggling the kids' schedules, it's only natural to feel threatened. Similarly, it's difficult for a man to accept that his wife is a successful businesswoman and a family provider." The Halls also advocate reevaluating housework (including gardening and child care) and trimming it of tasks that don't really need to be done (who'll ever know you don't dust under your end tables?). This book is laden with examples and sports a few cartoons by William Hamilton. It is pleasurable reading because it treats relationships as singular and therefore having unique solutions that can be arrived at with the aid of the various tools provided in the book.

The Changing Life of the Corporate Wife is the most specialized of the three books, dealing as it does with the select group of wives whose husbands-cum-corporations expect them to be unpaid second employees via an elaborate support system designed to free the primary employee (the executive) from the petty stuff of everyday home life. Vandervelde herself is an anachronism in this group, having been a corporate wife for 17 years as well as a psychotherapist. As background for the book she conducted interviews with the respondents of a survey sent to the chief executives and their wives of the Fortune 500 list. Approximately a quarter of the thousand surveys sent out were returned, and these were followed up with interviews.

It is encouraging to note that this, too, is a positive book, recognizing that no matter the social pressures a woman faces, somewhere, ultimately, a choice was made. The book is rife with quotes and examples, most of which speak for themselves. Grant Simmons, one of the chief executive officers (CEOs) interviewed, remarked about a man with an "independent" wife: "If he doesn't have the dominance to handle his wife, he doesn't have the leadership ability we want." One CEO said of an exceptionally organized wife: "I wish I had her working for me rather than him"—a sad commentary on these transitory times. Only one CEO among the Fortune 500, incidentally, was a woman—Katherine Graham of the Washington Post, and she declined to participate in the survey because of other time commitments.

Vandervelde advises corporate wives in flux to focus on the opportunities rather than the difficulties of being a corporate wife and raises options similar to those discussed in the other two books: having less kids, using "flextime," saying no to a corporate transfer when it involves a wife's giving up an important job. She rejects the paternalism implicit in recent moves to have corporations solve these problems. The book ends with a chapter written by Vandervelde's husband, Ray Looney, the president of Northwestern Glass Company, entitled "Men of Quality Are Not Threatened by a Woman of Equality." He basically reiterates that liberated "lives are richer for recognition of the fact that when one person invests primarily in the other, and not in herself, it is boring, and unfair, and a tremendous burden as well."

All three books see marriage as a partnership where both spouses benefit, yet not at the expense of one or the other. They are confident that individuals in a committed relationship can surmount all possible problems if they view it as a given that their relationship is the most important value in their lives but that it is flexible and ever-changing. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next 10 years, and then in the 10 years beyond that, when a whole new generation of young men and women will have grown up with a vast array of role models.

Christine Dorffi is an assistant editor at REASON and coauthors our Trends department.