Back in the 1950s, before it was commonplace for women to get a college degree and a job, women who were more educated than their husbands were at a greater risk of divorce, a trend that persisted through the 1970s. But in recent years, that risk of divorce has disappeared, proving that heterosexual marriages have become more egalitarian when it comes to gender roles, according to a new study from Christine R. Schwartz and Hongyun Han in the American Sociological Review.
The two researchers looked at data on marriages starting in 1950 going up until 2004. They found that women who got married between 1950 and 1954 and were more educated than their husbands were about one and a half times more likely to get divorced than women who had less education than their husbands. They were also more likely to get divorced than couples where both spouses had the same education level.
By the time span between 2000 and 2004, that was no longer true. More educated women are no longer at a greater risk of divorce (although the researchers can’t conclude that they are at less of a risk) and couples with the same educational level are actually less likely to divorce than those where the wife has less education.
Past research has consistently shown that a couple where the wife has attained more education are 27 to 38 percent more likely to end up in divorce. But the authors note that those studies hadn’t looked at recent marriages, when women are on the whole more likely to have a college education and increasingly likely to be more educated than their husbands. Since the mid-1980s, women have completed college degrees at a higher rate than men, and wives’ education has, on average, been higher than husbands’ since the early 1990s. And in individual couples, it was more common for husbands to have more education than their wives than the other way around up until the early 1980s. But since then, among couples that have different levels, it’s more common for wives to be better educated.
“These results are consistent with a shift away from rigid gender specialization toward more flexible, egalitarian partnerships, and they provide an important counterpoint to claims that progress toward gender equality in heterosexual relationships has stalled,” the researchers write. Indeed, they point out that feminist scholars argued that the higher divorced trends for better educated wives were driven by posing a threat to men’s “gender identity as breadwinners and household heads,” but note that “Given the rise of egalitarian marriage, however, the severity of this threat may be declining.”
Fathers have nearly tripled the time they spend on childcare since the 1960s and have more than doubled the time they spend on housework. At the same time, nearly half of mothers now work full time, up from 30 percent in 1979. They have nearly tripled the time they spend on paid work. In a 2011 study, 65 percent of fathers felt that parents should equally split childrearing duties. There has been “a decline in the negative relationship between wives’ educational advantage and marital stability as the division of labor in marriage becomes less strictly gendered and as these relationships become more common,” the researchers write.
If these results hadn’t proven true, that would have been proof of a “stalled revolution” in gender roles and women’s equality, they note, showing that progress would have happened more slowly in heterosexual relationships than elsewhere. But those fears look overblown. And when it comes to public anxiety about whether successful women can get married and stay married, the authors write, “We find no evidence that these concerns are warranted for recent marriage cohorts.”
The revolution isn’t complete, of course, and there are some other negative signs. A recent study found that men feel threatened if their female partners have higher intelligence. And although most of the fathers in the 2011 study wanted to split childcare, just 30 percent actually divvied it up that way. Meanwhile, women are still doing far more housework and childcare even though a record number of families rely on their earnings from paid work. But highly educated women no longer have to worry that their achievements threaten their marriages.