This Is What Happens When Women Make More Money Than Men
Earlier this week, The Handmaid’s Tale made its much-anticipated debut as a dramatic series based on the classic dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood. It’s both terrifying and utterly riveting: Set in the not-too-distant future, what was formerly the United States has been demolished by an authoritarian government and a mysterious condition has descended upon mankind where women have largely become infertile. In this new world order, the working class is forced into roles that serve the socio-political elite, and among them are a group of women referred to as “handmaids”--women of childbearing age that are meant to serve as vessels through which the ruling government class can carry on their lineage.
If you haven’t seen it yet, it is very much as creepy and disturbing as it sounds. Through flashbacks, we see how the country arrived at this not-too-distant future: In reaction to an increasingly liberated female population, an extremist religious faction wrests control of the government, implementing, step by step, a plan that strips women of the autonomy they have spent centuries cultivating; they wake up one day and their bank accounts are frozen, with funds being handed over to their husbands or next male of kin. The same day, a law is passed forbidding women to hold jobs. It’s revealed that over the years, the growing unease festering within the conservative folds of a progressive society--especially in regards to women’s increasingly powerful roles--have built to a breaking point.
I watched the first three episodes last night, and I suspect I wouldn’t have gone to bed half as freaked out if I hadn’t spent a good chunk of my time earlier this week reading about men's inability to cope with the increasing economic prosperity of women (even despite that whole $.79 cents on the dollar thing). For instance, a recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistic shows that since 1975, the number of men ages 25 to 34 in the workplace has more or less remained the same at just below 85%, while the number of women in that same group has increased over 20%. Between December 2008 and March 2010, during the economic recession, the unemployment rate was on average 2 points higher for men over the age of 20 than it was for their female counterparts. In other words: women are driving economic growth, while men are experiencing a decline.
As you might expect, these growth patterns have resulted in an increasing number of women out-earning their male partners as well. As of 2015, 38% of women were the primary breadwinners in their households, and while this number has been slowly on the rise since the 80s, the increase in recent years has been much more drastic. Fascinatingly, a recent Harvard Business Review study showed that men who experience this become more partisan in their beliefs; conservative men were shown to move to the right on issues like abortion and federal aid to black individuals, whereas liberal men tended to move to the left.
Add to that this New York Times piece from last month examining whether Millennial men are less supportive of egalitarian family arrangements than they were 20 years ago and whether this supposedly progressive generation is actually hankering for a society in which stay-at-home wives are the gold standard.
It’s scary stuff, in part because so much of the way we perceive gender is informed by biases ingrained in from a young age, and it’s a hard thing to undo--even for the women enacting this change. While you might be able to find a lot of dudes talking the talk in terms of fighting for equal pay and maybe even marching around in pussy hats nowadays, you better believe there’s a lot of lingering patriarchal bullshit (if you didn’t catch this perfect SNL skit on that exact topic a few months ago, it’s well worth your time). An MTV poll showed that 27% of males ages 14 to 24--that’s 1 in 4--felt that women’s progress came at the expense of men. It’s both surprising and not; the number of times I’ve had a conversation with a dude where one minute, we’re chatting amicably about universal health care, and then next, he’s calling all of womankind a bunch of lazy, shifty wage thieves because I brought up the issue of maternity leave is thoroughly depressing.
All of which is to say: Women are killin’ it in a lot of ways, and there's no point in denying that it's making people uncomfortable. If The Handmaid’s Tale is a warning of how quickly this discomfort can spread to catastrophic proportions, it’s all the more reason to remain vigilant about our rights and keep on fighting.