Berta White earns more money than her husband, Burl. Elizabeth and Glenn Story make equal salaries. Wanda Thomas did earn "a great deal more" than her husband Michael for several years, but this year his salary topped hers.
These Texans do not try to hide the fact that they are equal partners when it comes to the household budget. The women feel no need to "protect" their husbands' egos, because the husbands are unanimously delighted that their wives work and enjoy it.
"Earn-alike" couples, where the wife earns as much as or more than her husband, may be the exception statistically, but they are nonetheless breaking stereotypes about men and women and money. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that over 6 million working wives (or nearly 24 percent of all wives who work full time) make equal to or more than their husbands. Many of these women have husbands who are students, unemployed, or retired.
But in some marriages, both partners work full time. And, contrary to popular myth, they are not all young, child-free couples in white-collar professional jobs. Berta White is a sheet-metal inspector and Burl is a machinist. They have been married 36 years and have raised five children. Elizabeth Story, a finance director for a Girl Scout Council, and her husband, Glenn, who owns an air-conditioning service, have been married 22 years and have one child. And Wanda and Michael Thomas, who have been married seven years, have three teen-agers from their previous marriages. Mrs. Thomas is the owner and president of Data Processing Inc. in Dallas, and Mr. Thomas is in commercial real estate.
Suzanne McCall, professor of marketing and management at East Texas State University in Commerce, Texas, who coined the phrase "earn-alike," recently interviewed 236 women for her research on such couples. She found that the majority are "extremely happy" in their marriages, and the preponderance of husbands are proud of their wives. Ninety-seven percent of the women say that both they and their husbands are happy that they work.
"They are very secure and independent," says Dr. McCall in a telephone interview. "These couples are 50 years ahead of their time."
Dr. McCall admits the respondents in her earn-alike survey may be biased, since they volunteered to be interviewed after reading an article in a Dallas newspaper. But she says the women she did interview are fairly representative.
They encompass a variety of jobs and backgrounds, as evidenced by the Whites, the Storys, and the Thomases, who all took part in the survey. Nearly half of the women and 38 percent of the husbands in the survey are business managers or professionals. More than 34 percent of the women are teachers or clerical workers. Thirty-one percent of the men hold either office/clerical or blue-collar jobs. Working women: 'independent deluxe'
Dr. McCall calls the women in her study "independent deluxe." When each was asked what one person is most responsible for her success, 57 percent of the women named themselves.
Wanda Thomas is a case in point. She was working in data management for a major oil company when she decided she had had enough.
"I couldn't stand the big corporation philosophy," she says. She knew she had the expertise and talent to start her own company, and she did it. The three-year-old firm has been very successful.
Berta White decided on her own to go to work when her last daughter started school. She doesn't pay much heed to talk about who should be the breadwinner.
"It is often a necessity for both people to work," she says, matter-of-factly. "And I feel better working than staying at home."
When Elizabeth Story decided to go to work in the first year of her marriage, her husband, Glenn, laughed at first. But they have been equal partners ever since.
"We have always shared decisions and tasks," she says. Most men proud of their working wives
Dr. McCall calls the composite man in her study "a unique guy." She did not encounter many men with battered egos. In fact, many of the husbands were the ones who got in touch with Dr. McCall to volunteer for the survey.
"I was surprised at how many of the initial respondents were men," says Dr. McCall. "They were mighty proud of their wives, and they often wanted to tell me right over the telephone!"
Burl White, a Dallas machinist, says he is all for his wife's working. She began as a clerical worker 13 years ago, and has moved up the ranks to sheet-metal inspector.
"She makes more money than me, you know," he says, pride evident even over the telephone. He adds that the family could make it on one salary alone, but since both partners work, they can afford things they wouldn't be able to otherwise.
Mr. White admits he gets a small amount of kidding from his co-workers, most of whom know that his wife earns more.
"They joke and say I should shape up and get a better job, but it doesn't bother me," he says with a laugh.
Michael Thomas, who is in real estate, says his wife's success as a businesswoman is "fantastic."
"It is very gratifying when your wife wants to work and maintain a household and at the same time make more money than you," he says with a chuckle. Then he adds more seriously: "If we make enough togetherm to support our family and the way we want to live, that is what is important."
Most wives in the survey appreciate their husband's flexibility.
"We have an exceptional marriage," says Elizabeth Story. "I think a lot of it is due to his [her husband's] attitude."
When Wanda Thomas was starting her business three years ago, Michael was also switching careers. During that beginning period, Mrs. Thomas made a lot more money than he did.
"It was touchy, but we are very communicative," says Mrs. Thomas. She adds that no matter how broad-minded a man is, a couple has something new to deal with when the wife is making more money. The Thomases agreed that the point of their marriage was that there were "two of us," and each would contribute what he or she could. This year has been very successful for Mr. Thomas, and his salary is more than his wife's.
Mrs. Thomas says she did experience a "surge of power" when she was bringing home most of the money, and this gave her a glimpse into why some men dominate in a relationship.
"It was tempting sometimes to say, 'We'll do it my way.' Most men hold the economic strings. It was an interesting insight into the male role." Financial input and family decisions
In her book "The Two Paycheck Marriage," Caroline Bird points out that the bigger a wife's financial contribution, the bigger her say in family decisions. Dr. McCall says her recent research of earn-alike couples, along with previous research she has done on working wives and their husbands, supports that notion. Her work has also shown that marriages are happier when the income gap is smaller between husband and wife.
But though some earn-alike wives feel their marriage has been strengthened by their working, others say that it can break marriages apart. Since Dr. McCall finished her survey, two of the couples have been divorced.
"Some blame the divorces on the escalation of income and prestige for the woman," says Dr. McCall. Marriage counselors point out that it is usually not careers per se that break up marriages; often the financial freedom that working gives a wife allows her to leave a bad relationship. How the children feel
Fifty-three percent of the couples in Dr. McCall's survey have children. Fifty-five percent of the mothers say their children are proud that they work, while 33 report their children are indifferent. Only a tiny minority say their children feel slighted. The couples in the survey face the same problems as any dual career family, but most are very highly family oriented, says Dr. McCall.
The mothers with children are concerned about proper role models at school.
"Textbooks are still very stereotyped, with mom in the apron," says Dr. McCall. "There is very little career guidance. These women are real pioneers, and they sometimes resent the schools for not helping more."
Wanda Thomas points out that her 17-year-old daughter had a tough time in a course called "home and family" because of her support for issues such as the draft for women, the Equal Rights Amendment, and abortion. Most of the class had more conservative values. But at the end of the course, when students were asked whether they thought their parents' marriage was happy, Mrs. Thomas's daughter was the only one who thought so. Who does the housework?
Housework among the earn-alike couples is still the domain of the wife in over half of the couples.
But more than 34 percent of the couples indicate that the cleaning is done jointly.
"I am not involved in the dishes, but I vacuum," says Michael Thomas. "In fact, I am probably more concerned with the neatness of the house than my wife is. I pick out the color of the drapes and all, and buy them with her ok. I guess I am the male in the mother role."
Two cultural "hang-ups" did crop up in the study, points out Dr. McCall. There is a difference in the reasons men and women say an earn-alike wife works. Most women in the survey say they work because they need the money. But when asked about their husband's views, more say their spouse likes them to work because the husbands see that it makes the wife happier.
"A woman thinks it is more acceptable to work because she has to," she says. "And for a man, it is a put-down if his wife hasm to work."