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Modern Marriages: The Rise Of The Sugar Mama
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Modern Marriages: The Rise Of The Sugar Mama

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Modern Marriages: The Rise Of The Sugar Mama
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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Maybe youve heard the old joke that some women used to go to college to get their M.R.S. degree that is, a husband. In sheer economic terms, marriage was long the best way for a woman to get ahead economically. But�now, it seems that joke may be out of date. A study by the Pew Research Center�finds there's been a role reversal when it comes to men, women and the economics of marriage. NPRs Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: The study compares marriages in 2007 to those in 1970. Remember attitudes about womens work back then? Well, heres that decade's leading armchair pundit, Archie Bunker, when his wife, Edith, decides to job hunt.

(Soundbite of TV show, All in the Family)

Ms. JEAN STAPLETON (As Judith Bunker): I'm just saying that somebody better bring some money in this house, and soon.

Mr. CARROLL OCONNOR (As Archie Bunker): Well, somebody will, but that somebodyll be wearing pants, not panties.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: No wonder most wives didn't work. Theyd only recently won the right not to be fired when they got married. And even a woman with a college degree likely made less than a man with a high-school diploma. Richard Fry is with the Pew Research Center.

Mr. RICHARD FRY (Pew Research Center): When you think about, from a guy's perspective, marriage wasn't such a great deal. You know, it raised a household size, but it didn't bring in a lot more income.

LUDDEN: Today, many more women work in a greater variety of jobs, and their median wages have risen far more than men's. On top of this for the first time ever among those 44 and under more women than men have college degrees. The Pew Centers D'Vera Cohn says it's all turned the marriage market on its head.

Ms. D'VERA COHN (Pew Research Center): We found that increasingly, women are more likely to marry husbands who have lower education levels than they do and lower income levels than they do, and the reverse is true for men.

LUDDEN: Men like Derek Monnig, whose wife makes about double what he does.

Mr. DEREK MONNIG: Well, she gets called a sugar mama quite often.

LUDDEN: Monnig and his wife are in their early 40s and work in the same telecommunications firm in Denver. She's two levels up the management chain. He says he would have been too intimidated to ask her out, but a colleague set them up. Six years into marriage, Monnig says he's fine with the income disparity. In fact, three of his wife's brothers are in the same position.

Mr. MONNIG: And it's kind of a joke. You know, we laugh about it when we get together. And it's kind of nice to be supported, you know?

LUDDEN: Still, pop culture can seem stuck in the '70s. Take the recently released movie Up in the Air, where female lead Vera Farmiga describes the ideal mate.

(Soundbite of movie, Up in the Air,)

Ms. VERA FERMIGA (Actress): (As Alex Goran) Please, let him earn more money than I do. You might not understand that now but believe me, you will one day. Otherwise, that's a recipe for disaster.

Ms. STEPHANIE COONTZ (Author, Marriage: A History): I think this is really an example of an outdated idea.

LUDDEN: Stephanie Coontz is the author of Marriage: A History. She says in a poll in 1967, two-thirds of women said they'd consider marrying a man they did not love if he had really good earnings potential.

Ms. COONTZ: Now, women have a completely different point of view. They say overwhelmingly 87 percent says it's more important to have a man who can communicate well, who can be intimate, and who will share the housework, than it is to have someone who earns more money than you do.

LUDDEN: But even some housework-sharing husbands are having trouble with this new economic order.

Mr. STEVEN HOLMES (Freelance Photographer): The tension really surrounds this notion of, I'm the man so I should be providing.

LUDDEN: Steve Holmes is a freelance photographer in Northern California and makes far less than his wife at IBM. Holmes says he often finds himself holding back in discussions about spending money.

Mr. HOLMES: Because I have this guilt that I feel like I am not an equal partner. So I will let her make the decision, even though I might have had a different opinion.

LUDDEN: In Fort Lauderdale, Shelly Murray used to rely on her husband's income and frankly, had no problem dipping into their joint account. But it's not the same for her husband now that she's a lawyer and the tables are turned.

Ms. SHELLY MURRAY: When there's some kind of a stress in the relationship, even something peripheral that has nothing to do with money, that will come up in the conversation.

LUDDEN: Marriage expert Stephanie Coontz says no one should exaggerate women's new economic prowess. They still make 77 cents to a man's dollar, and their earnings can lag over time since women are more likely to cut back to care for children. But this, too, is shifting. In Denver, Derek Monnig and his wife have started talking about having kids.

Mr. MONNIG: Making less, I would be the one to stay at home. We've already decided that.

LUDDEN: Monnig says his wife would love to stay home with a child. But financially speaking, that just wouldn't make sense.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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