Domestic politics: What happens when a feminist has to rely on her partner to pay?

Originally published at The Telegraph.

housewife_2523707bResearch says that men are now happy for their wives to be the breadwinner. But, with today’s reports of the mass under-employment of professional women in the UK, can that be a reality? And can our egalitarian relationships cope? Sarah Graham reports.

By the time Feminist Times, where I was Deputy Editor, closed a month ago I was earning so little from it that my partner was paying all but one of our monthly bills.

Believe me, the irony of finding myself financially dependent on the man on my life in the name of feminism wasn’t lost on me, nor my colleagues – many of who found themselves in the same situation.

A recently published study found that young men today are the first generation to be happy for women to be the main breadwinner in a marriage. Commenting on the results, Professor of Sociology Christine Schwartz said: “The trends are consistent with a shift away from a breadwinner-homemaker model of marriage toward a more egalitarian model in which women’s status is less threatening to men’s gender identity.”

But, while today’s men might be ‘happy’ for women to be the breadwinner, the reality is somewhat different.

According to research published today by the Fawcett Society, there is widespread under-employment of professional women in the UK today. One in four are in low-paid jobs (earning less than £7.44 an hour). And of those (equivalent to three million), almost 37 per cent say their works falls well below their ability. While 22 per cent of those earning below the ‘low paid job rate’ have a degree.

For the first four years of our relationship, as students, my partner and I operated on a totally level financial playing field. We paid 50:50 for everything, from rent and bills to nights out. But from the moment I followed my dream into journalism – and he followed his into the far more lucrative world of software developing – there’s inevitably been a gap between our salaries. And, unless either of us opts for a drastic career change, that’s not likely to reverse any time soon.

Leah, 23, an events coordinator, tells me her fiancé earns almost double her salary working as an engineer. “We split the rent and bills 60:40, which goes out of a joint account, but we keep our separate accounts too for disposable income,” she explains. “This means I have a little more to spend on doing fun things together than I would have if we split down the middle.”

When it comes to holidays and going out, Leah says, “we tend to split 50:50”. And living with a fellow “clean freak” has proved an effective way of ensuring that household duties are also shared out evenly. “I do cook every night and try to do a bit extra to make up for my shortfall, but I think this is predominantly subconscious,” she admits.

Entrepreneur Rachel, 32, tells me she and husband Simon, a campaigner, are “common potters who treat both of our incomes as shared” and “split daily [household] tasks fairly evenly”. Any tension about the difference in their incomes, she says, “is entirely on my side. He is happy to financially support me – partly, because he thinks my work is important, and partly because he sees this as a temporary thing. Either the work I am doing now pays off and our income gap shrinks, or it doesn’t and I go back to a salaried job.”

Yet guilt is a common theme for both women.

“At the start, I worried that I wasn’t paying my way – especially after a girl he works with joked that there should be 10 per cent of the flat that I don’t have access to,” Leah says.

Rachel is concerned about an impact on the equality of their relationship. “Being dependent on my husband makes me feel like a leech. I think the knowledge that I’m dependent creates a lot of guilt, and a little bit of resentment, on my end,” she says.

Continue reading at Telegraph Wonder Women…

4 thoughts on “Domestic politics: What happens when a feminist has to rely on her partner to pay?

  1. It is a hard one, and one that my partner have discussed again recently when I left a full-time, permanent, reasonably well-paid job that was so stressful it was making me ill. I’m now working freelance while I develop a social enterprise. I’m still bringing money in although my income has dropped by about half. We square the circle by doing what we always have – each paying 50% of our income into our joint account, which we use for all of our joint bills (mortgage, utilities) and other shared spending (food, eating out, more fun things). This feels fair to us as we each contribute an equal proportion of our income. We are a partnership and we recognise that there are times when we will need to support each other, only this time the support is financial and it’s his turn to help me. And this is far better for me, and for him, than being a wreck every day. 

    Is this something you could do? The amount you both pay in will change – up or down – as both of your incomes change but will continue to be fair and you will both contribute equally. 

    You could also think together about what feels like a fair contribution to the life and home you both share. I worry about the way we as a society value money over other contributions, skills, etc. We all need enough money to live but after that you can think about what it means to have a good life together and what each of you can do to make it happen. 

    I think a lot of our (women’s? All people?) guilt or uncertainty comes from trying to conform to other people’s expectations rather than being able to work out what we each want. This is super hard to do, and I haven’t cracked it, not in the slightest, but it might help us all live better lives. 

    Good luck! And thanks for writing the (very excellent!) article. 

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