I raise this question because today I experienced the disorienting juxtaposition of Equal Pay Day with the retro notion that women’s growing economic power makes us want to be dominated during sex.
Equal Pay Day marks the day in April when women wear red to signify we’re in the red, earning (by 2011 calculations) but 77.4 cents to men’s $1. And for African-American and Hispanic women the differential is significantly more extreme.
This marker of financial non-power came just after Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker disappeared the state’s equal pay law. It also coincided with author and journalism professor Katie Roiphe’s implausible analysis of the S and M-loving novel Fifty Shades of Gray.
A paradox in her own mind, Roiphe opines:
“It is intriguing that huge numbers of women are eagerly consuming myriad and disparate fantasies of submission at a moment when women are ascendant in the workplace…when—in hard economic terms—women are less dependent or subjugated than before.
It is probably no coincidence that, as more books like The Richer Sex by Liza Mundy and Hanna Rosin’s forthcoming The End of Men appear, there is a renewed popular interest in the stylized theater of female powerlessness…We may then be especially drawn to this particular romanticized, erotically charged, semi-pornographic idea of female submission at a moment in history when male dominance is shakier than it has ever been.”
Really? And whose preferred narrative do we think this zero-sum “power-over” social model is?
Even if we bought the logical framework, assertions of female dollar dominion are greatly overstated. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 28.9% of wives in dual income families out earn their husbands. If my elementary school math holds up, that means more than 70% of men still out earn their wives.
And because women don’t negotiate as aggressively as men and don’t toot their own horns as flagrantly, each woman who works for pay outside the home (note the language here, Hilary Rosen) gets ever-farther behind in the paycheck race, amassing a half-million dollar average deficit by retirement age.
Here’s a dandy little chart created by Catalyst that lays it out starkly.
Men Hold the Vast Majority of Positions of Power (and Remuneration) in the United States.
Table: Percentage of Women and Men in Positions of Power in the United States, 2011
|% of CEOs in the Fortune 500||3.4%||96.6%|
|% of Top Earners in the Fortune 500||7.5%||92.5%|
|% of Executive Officers in the Fortune 500||14.1 %||85.9%|
|% of Board Seats in the Fortune 500||16.1%||83.9%|
|% Working in Congress||16.8%||83.2%|
|% Working in Senate||17.0%||83.0%|
Sex and the Power of the Paycheck
For men, the “mine is bigger than his” ideal, whether we’re talking paycheck, possessions, or penis, isn’t mitigated by any cultural narrative of a presumed desire for powerlessness. So why should a desire for powerlessness be inherently true for women?
Which doesn’t mean women don’t experience real power ambivalence issues, as I found in my research for No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power.
It’s hard to change a culture while you’re living in it, and there’s a big risk in upending any power structure. You lose the comfort of familiar misery. People say bad things about you. You have to actually think. To make choices and take responsibility for what you choose.
Co-option becomes rampant on all sides of this equation. The rewards of living within the patriarchal narrative are so high and the benefits of bucking it so low. Why else would Tina Brown publish Roiphe’s logically torqued submission theory?
But think about the alternative to embracing the power of the paycheck:
Think of all those freezing days in January, when the dark comes early. Those miserable gray mornings in February, when the ground is covered in slush and the car refuses to start. Those blustery days in March when spring seems like it’s refusing to ever come. Think of working all those days for nothing, zilch, nada. That’s what pay disparity looks like.
The late Nobel-winning economist Paul Samuelson quipped that “women are just men with less money.” That’s not funny if you’re a woman struggling to raise a family on your own, and it’s not right or just regardless of one’s financial position.
So it’s incumbent upon women to do as PBS “One-on-One” host Maria Hinojosa said as she wrapped up a New York Women’s Agenda panel on equal pay with an exhortation to action, “You have to learn to eat your fear, to turn the tables on the power relationships.”
Pay Disparity = Power Disparity
For as long as women are paid less than men for the same work, women will have less power in politics, in the workplace, and in personal relationships.
Economic inequality narrows the possibilities to define our lives at work, in politics and civic life, and in our relationships. True economic equality, on the other hand, would allow us to redefine the meaning of consent, sexual and otherwise, and create healthier relationships that are mutually rewarding in all spheres of life.
This kind of power to, not the domination-submission framework of power over, is what our country needs to assure that the intelligence and capabilities of all our citizens are used most effectively. Even those—male or female, high earners or not—who like to be spanked now and again during sex.
I hate to throw water on Katie Roiphe’s latest feminist-disparaging theory, but I feel a lot sexier after I’ve earned a nice book advance or a fair speaking fee than during an economic dry spell. And after I’ve deposited my money, I’ve never once had a fantasy of being submissive. Not even when I’ve out-earned my spouse.
Personally, I find paycheck power—mine, that is—quite an effective aphrodisiac, with no concomitant need to be subjugated or humiliated. But I do get off on verbally spanking legislators who don’t support equal pay policies.
Here’s a link where you can use your power to tell your members of Congress to vote for the Paycheck Fairness Act. Maybe our collective voices will whip them into submission.
Do it right now. I promise you’ll get a thrill.
And then, walk through the doors of power that have been opened for you; join me on Thursday, April 19, 2012, in a teleconference event, Sister Courage: How Movement Building can Break Glass Ceilings and Change the World. This Ten Buck Talk is sponsored by The Daily Thrive, a She Negotiates project.
GLORIA FELDT is the New York Times bestselling author of several books including No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, a sought-after speaker and frequent contributor to major news outlets, and the Co-Founder and President of Take The Lead. People has called her “the voice of experience,” and among the many honors she has been given, Vanity Fair called her one of America’s “Top 200 Women Legends, Leaders, and Trailblazers,” and Glamour chose her as a “Woman of the Year.”
As co-founder and president of Take The Lead, a leading women’s leadership nonprofit, her mission is to achieve gender parity by 2025 through innovative training programs, workshops, a groundbreaking 50 Women Can Change The World immersive, online courses, a free weekly newsletter, and events including a monthly Virtual Happy Hour program and a Take The Lead Day symposium that reached over 400,000 women globally in 2017.