Swap spying for marriage and you have, more or less, the argument of Deniz Kandiyoti’s famous 1988 article Bargaining With Patriarchy. She analyzed the ways that women in India and the United States are first pressured into accepting the “bargain” of becoming reliant on a man in exchange for the promise of his support and protection, and then become invested in preserving the patriarchal system, because they fear that any threat to it would mean men are released from their obligations under those traditional rules.
Feminism and the release from patriarchal norms can benefit younger generations, Kandiyoti writes. But for “the generation of women caught in between, this transformation may represent genuine personal tragedy, since they have paid the heavy price of an earlier patriarchal bargain, but are not able to cash in on its promised benefits.” Those women are often deeply opposed to feminism, and fearful of the changes it can bring. (This is a theme of another great TV drama, “Mrs. America,” about the rise of the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, in case you’re looking for another series for your gender inequality watch party.)
Last spring, I interviewed Angie Maxwell, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas who studies voting patterns among white, Southern women. She found that the Republican Party managed to build support among that group partly by connecting to their fears that the women’s movement would leave wives and mothers vulnerable to abandonment by their husbands.
“If you’re financially dependent and people are saying that you’re going to have to fend for yourself, that if you get divorced your husband won’t have to pay child support, that’s terrifying,” she told me.
It’s a pattern that shows up in more subtle ways too, even among people who do support women’s equality and feminism, but whose individual choices are constrained by the realities of an unequal world. A new report from Price Waterhouse Coopers, a consulting company, found that “The motherhood penalty — the loss in lifetime earnings experienced by women raising children — has become the most significant driver of the gender pay gap.” And the main reason for the motherhood penalty, it finds, is that mothers take on most of the burden of child care in almost every country around the world. In the United Kingdom, the report found, the high costs of child care cause many women to leave the work force entirely.
It is of course possible for men to share child-care duties equally. My husband and I both work, and he does at least half, and often more, of the care for our two children. And I’d like to believe that’s because of our firm commitment to equality within the relationship. But I know that it probably helps that there has never been a time when our family was more reliant on his earnings than on mine. There has never been any practical incentive to preserve his career at the expense of my own.
But when men to out-earn their partners, as they often do, the incentives look different. I’ve watched many of the high-achieving women I know drift out of the work force after having children because their husbands’ salaries were much higher. It starts early: paternity leave is often largely unpaid, and when the husband is the higher earner the costs of taking unpaid paternity leave can seem insurmountable when the family is facing the added expenses of a new baby.