The Emergence of the Alpha-Wife and Breadwinner

07/07/2011 04:21 pm ET | Updated Sep 06, 2011

The definition of the word breadwinner is as follows: One whose earnings are the primary source of support for one's dependents; a person supporting a family with his or her earnings. More than 50 percent of all households in the USA have a woman as its prime "breadwinner."

The social norms of the past have changed and the "alpha-wife" has emerged.

This turn-about in primary salaries hasn't arrived suddenly. It has been steadily on the rise for the past 20 years but is only now being studied by sociologists. In the traditional past, men's salaries have been the primary source of family income. Much of that had to do with society's ideas that men had careers and women were homemakers. Past generations of men were made to feel uncomfortable if their wives "had money"; usually inherited and not earned I may add. It was seen as a definite blow to the male ego and to his masculinity if he depended on his wife's money. The few strong, successful women were seen as enigmas and the epithets used to describe them were not at all flattering. Unfortunately the word "bitch" became a synonym for a successful woman.

The simple fact that educational and job training opportunities were geared more to men than women, left no doubt over who would become the "breadwinner." It was a man's world.

However, the women of the past 20 years have been fortunate enough to have excellent opportunities in education and training available which enabled them to enter fields once dominated by men.

Men coming of age in an era where it was commonplace for Mom to work outside the home in a well-paying job, see women as competent and strong. A woman's earning power has increased dramatically and with that power comes responsibilities. Many men may feel that it is only fair that their partner's salary be the primary one; the supposed blow to the male ego seems to be non-existent. A recent survey from California states that men are actually relieved to no longer be the sole breadwinner and decision-maker, a burden many watched their fathers shoulder.

Statistics show that of wives who earn more than $100,000, one in three is married to a husband earning less. In the past men were considered a good catch if they were high earners and a woman who was married to one was considered to have done well for herself. Now this same attitude applies to top-earning women and the men who marry them.

Men seem to be very comfortable with a woman whose salary tops his own.
"I like being married to a strong, competent woman who earns an excellent salary. It doesn't matter to me that her income is significantly more than mine. It actually frees me to be more selective in my job choices. I no longer have all the financial pressure to stay in a job I dislike. Michelle's salary enabled me to make a career change." says Jon.

His wife Michelle added, "I very much like being in a strong financial position. I never had any intention to not use my education to obtain my career. Who earns what is not important as long as we're both happy in our choice of lifestyle."

Sociologist, Catherine Bartlett says the alpha-wife has begun to replace the so-called trophy wife.

"The trophy wife was wanted for her youth, beauty, and body. She earned nothing on her own and truthfully wasn't someone who was sought after for her brains. The alpha-wife is desired for her intelligence and her power as a top money earner. She's independent and savvy. Her looks, though certainly visible, are secondary."

If the pressure to support a family is no longer solely a man's domain it may have created a problem for a few women. There are some women who don't relish the role of being the breadwinner. The very same educational and training advantages that helped women to achieve in the workforce can become a domestic dilemma. The idea of shouldering the complete financial burden of a family sometimes causes a subtle resentment. This is compounded by the fact that their equally well-educated husbands are content to have jobs with less pay or no jobs at all. Barring stay-at-home dads who take over child-care responsibilities, most women feel their husband should work a full-time job the same as they do.

Change always follows success and the fact that women are achieving financial success makes it easier for men to change their own ideas about working. Laboring simply to "get ahead" is no longer satisfactory for men; they seek more job satisfaction. The majority of working women say that job satisfaction, though important, now takes a back seat to getting ahead.

Sometimes "change" needs a little tweak to benefit both spouses. Couples need to evaluate both their marital and individual goals. Each needs to contribute either financially, or in other productive ways, to make their lives together work.

Still most women are happier and more satisfied in their new role as the alpha-wife. Men seem to enjoy being with a woman who can not only match, but exceed them, in salary. Strong earning power brings a healthy confidence along with it to anyone's life, male or female. Whether we choose to use the title of alpha-wife or not, we have earned the right to enjoy the benefits of our careers and working lives.

To read more from Kristen Houghton, peruse her articles at and visit her Keys to Happiness blog. You may email her at Unhappy? Read the book critics call "a book of sane and savvy advice for all", "And Then I'll Be Happy! Stop Sabotaging Your Happiness and Put Your Own Life First."