By Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin, CEO & Executive Director, 40 Percent and Rising.
For the entirety of my married life, I’ve made more money than my husband. And not a little bit more — a lot. The year we met, in my job as a Wall Street lawyer, I made something like ten times what he did as an actor and bartender in New York City.
Over the years, my accomplishments grew. I went from working on Wall Street to starting my own business. My work was profiled on Forbes.com, on DailyWorth and in MindBodyGreen, among other outlets. I made the cover of a magazine in the UK.
And my income continued to outpace my husband’s exponentially. When I got pregnant with our daughter in 2011, it made sense for a whole host of reasons for my husband to quit work and become the stay-at-home parent.
I entered into all of this — our partnership, our marriage, parenthood and our family arrangements — with open eyes and a complete awareness of the financial responsibilities I was undertaking.
And yet, a part of me was secretly, deeply ashamed that I was so successful. A part of me couldn’t reconcile how I had become the provider for my family while my husband stayed home with our kids, instead of the other way around.
In the dark, at night, I often wondered why I got so uncomfortable every time someone asked me, “so, what does your husband do?”
I didn’t talk about this to anyone. I was a public figure, a C-Level executive, a huge success by any measure and a feminist to boot. It seemed so retrogressive, so contrary to all that I believed in, so unappreciative, to feel this way in even the smallest amount.
Shame, as we all know, grows in silence.
Soon, it became unbearable. And so, like any good lawyer trained in problem-solving, I began to investigate how I had gotten to that place.
When I began to look at that shame, at my embarrassment and even my occasional rage at the family dynamic we had chosen, however, I soon realized that the problem wasn’t me after all. Something much bigger was at play.
Certain memories began to grow in importance. For instance, my dad had raised me to be a feminist, and had always told me that there was nothing I couldn’t accomplish, regardless of gender. My career trajectory had largely proven him right.
And yet, he had also pulled me aside at an engagement party when I was in my early thirties and told me that I should never agree to marry someone who offered me a ring of less than two carats.
Even earlier than that, when I was a teenager, he had suggested to me, in only partial jest, that it was in familial best interest that I do our middle class family proud and aim to “marry a Kennedy.”
Fast-forward to 2009: my husband proposed to me, and there was no ring. I didn’t care. I said yes anyway, and gladly.
And while the rational, feminist, anti-materialistic side of me had no problem with the lack of a ring, in the years that followed, somewhere in the back of my head, a nagging voice would occasionally pop up to wonder, what does that say about me, that there’s no ring?
Gender programming: It’s a funny thing.
I wondered if, perhaps, this struggle was just mine.
I began talking to women who made more than their husbands, and I found that, shockingly, many more than I would have suspected did not want to admit to their success, and some actively strove to hide it. A few went so far as to give their husbands platinum cards to pay for dinners out and lavish marital gifts, while paying the bills with their own earnings in secret.
Over lunches and dinners, in confidence, we explored why. And it was then that the origin and intent of all that gender programming became rapidly clear.
It wasn’t all that long ago that many women were valued solely by the size of the money their fathers could contribute as a dowry, or by the size of their husband’s wealth and the value it brought to their families. Others of us were literally traded as property.
And for centuries, we were ingrained with powerful gender programming to the effect that our only value was in how we might be traded to benefit the financial worth of the men who raised us, married us or owned us.
If we married “down,” we were literally worth less (or “worthless”) in the eyes of our culture — shunned, chastised, devalued. If we married “up,” however, we were worth more, having served our appropriate role as currency in the negotiations of men seeking to build wealth and power.
It’s important to reiterate that these messages were imprinted over hundreds of years, and as women, we had no choice but to internalize them — our adherence to them could literally determine our survival.
We’re not so far away from those days now — let’s remember, for instance, that we have not yet marked the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. It wasn’t until 1974 that a woman could sign a bank application on her own, without a mandatory male cosigner on hand to establish her credit-worthiness.
And no matter what we know today, no matter how aware we are, how successful, no matter how much we know better, our culture continues to imprint us with messages as to how we should measure our value based on the net worth of those we partner with — to wit, the size of the ring.
What really matters most for today’s purposes, however, is this: We have forgotten that this system of value, this system that claims our worth can only be measured relative to the men in our lives, is not ours.
It is not our birthright, and it is not our legacy.
It belongs in large part to patriarchy, and it’s time we gave it back.
When I began to really investigate my shame and embarrassment about making more money than my husband, I realized that this internalized gender programming had done great damage to me, to my marriage, to my work and even to the world.
It caused me to downplay my accomplishments publicly, or even deny them, for fear of making my husband “feel bad.”
It caused me to not ask for a raise when I deserved one, because I didn’t want to compound “the problem” of outearning my husband.
It caused me to deny my successes, and even refuse to celebrate them, for fear of appearing “too big for my britches.”
It blew my self-esteem, because in the deep recesses of my mind, it reminded me over and over and over again that no matter what I did in my own career, the fact that I had married someone with a lesser earning capacity meant that there was something wrong with me.
It damaged my marriage, because I couldn’t value my husband’s contributions as a stay-at-home dad to the same extent I would have valued a six-figure income from him. (And let’s not forget that patriarchy limits what we believe men are good for, too.)
It caused me to stay quiet in the workplace, to refuse to take risks to go for what I deserved and to deny my full capacities and talents at work, for fear of retribution.
And at its worst, it kept me from owning the vastness of my gifts and talents, and thereby stepping into my innate capacity to change the world.
Needless to say, looking back, it’s easy to see now how all of this had an insidious way of keeping me, as a woman, “in my place.” Nefarious, isn’t it, and more than a little sad, how patriarchy works on us from inside our own heads.
As I began to emerge from this space of self-reflection, and as I vowed to give back to patriarchy this legacy of self-limitation, I also began to consider the effect of all of this on a global scale. For instance:
Imagine what would happen if, instead of playing small and downplaying our accomplishments so that our men “don’t feel intimidated,” we owned our successes as women and valued our men for theirs, in whatever form.
Imagine what would happen if we allowed ourselves to truly know our own worth — not by the financial worth of the men we partner with, or the men who fathered us, but on our own terms, for our own talents and contributions, in line with our own values.
Imagine, in other words, what might be possible if we stepped into all of our talents, contributions and values, and allowed them to fully shine without fear.
THAT, right there, is our true birthright and our true legacy. It’s time we owned it.
Then, and only then, we’d know our worth — not by the measure of the earnings of our partners, but by the measure of our own merit as people, as individuals, and collectively as women.
It’s my belief that as a result, the world would never be the same.
We wouldn’t put up with being paid less than our male counterparts, because we’d know our worth.
We wouldn’t put up with unconscious bias in the workplace, because we’d know our worth.
We wouldn’t put up with being told that we couldn’t be mothers and leaders at the same time, because we’d know our worth.
We wouldn’t put up with corporate practices that deny the value of our families and work us to the bone, because we’d know our worth.
We wouldn’t put up with unethical business practices for fear of retaliation, because we’d know our worth.
And we wouldn’t put up with others badmouthing our husbands who stay at home — or put up with it in ourselves — because we’d know the worth of the women who did that work for centuries before us, and we’d honor that worth by valuing any man’s choice to walk that path, too.
Once we know our worth, everything changes and anything is possible. The world will know our worth, because we do.
And so, I write today to say that I make more money than my husband. I rock the boardroom and I rock the house and I am damn proud of it. I stand with every other woman who does the same.
And together, when we claim the true legacy of our own value on our own terms, there’s no question that we’ll also rock the world.
Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin is a former Wall Street lawyer, an Executive and Leadership Coach and the CEO & Executive Director of 40 Percent and Rising, an organization by and for primary breadwinner women worldwide. To learn more about Elizabeth, check out www.emclaughlin.com and www.40percentandrising.com, or follow her on Twitter.