WASHINGTON—The marriages of women who work outside the home are more likely to stay together than the marriages of those who don't, according to new studies that have converted at least one prominent social conservative.
The findings offer guilt relief for some of the 67 million married U.S. working women and reflect a growing equity among couples when it comes to income, decision-making, parenting and housekeeping. And if working wives promote stability at home, the trend is likely to buttress public-policy arguments for more paid maternal and paternal leave and more help with child care.
That the centuries-old view of a woman's rightful place is being liberalized seems overdue to some.
"It's good in so many ways, but let's move on," said Penn State sociologist Stacy Rogers, co-author of the book "Alone Together: How Marriage in America Is Changing."
In fact, determining that working wives weren't prompting more divorce was a hard call for serious students of marriage and a big issue in feminist-conservative debates for years.
Many economists insisted that the specialization of a traditional marriage—a breadwinner and a homemaker—was more efficient and productive.
Social conservatives noted that the higher the income for working women, the higher the divorce rate.
Sociologists from 1980 onward struggled for clarity in a fast-changing domestic world of rising marriage ages, falling divorce rates, more cohabitation and rising incomes for women. Also confounding them was the endless range of domestic effects dependent on whether a wife wanted to work—and why—or had to.
In the end, time simplified the picture. More wives worked and made more money. More husbands appreciated it. More families adapted. That's the gist of Rogers' new book comparing the attitudes of married couples in 1980 to those in 2000.
The main shift was away from breadwinner-homemaker marriages to what the authors call "egalitarian marriages." In them, husbands and wives share decision-making power more equally and housekeeping and child-care duties more equitably.
Such alliances increased from 1980 to 2000, based on the book's nationally representative sample of 1,000 couples. They also were happier than traditional marriages.
Wives' contribution to family income rose sharply over the 20-year span, too, from 21 percent to 32 percent. They also generally did less housework, while husbands did more. Grumbling about unfairness shifted accordingly, the study found. The shift to more equitable housework may have helped marital stability, however, since wives initiate about two-thirds of U.S. divorces.
In 1980 as well as 2000, childless couples were generally happier than those with children. The study didn't explore how children or the absence of them may contribute to the stability of marriages.
Nancy Burstein, a senior consultant at Apt Associates, a public-policy research center based in Cambridge, Mass., reviewed years of research on marriage and divorce for an article in the latest issue of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Her finding: "The more recent and more convincing studies tend to show that women's employment and earnings increase marital stability."
Burstein's review impressed David Popenoe, founder and co-director of Rutgers University's National Marriage Project in New Brunswick, N.J., whose earlier pessimism about the impact of working wives on marriage often is cited by social conservatives.
"Working women have become the norm, and it's having a different effect today than 30 years ago," Popenoe said. Particularly in low-income families, he said, "wives are bringing in more money and keeping their marriages going."
Popenoe now thinks that the finding that working wives stabilize marriage is "probably right."
Glenn Stanton, director of global family-formation studies at Focus on the Family, a social conservative group based in Colorado Springs, Colo., acknowledged the "competing research." He said it was "still a very open question how women working plays into the family."
Indeed, some studies have found that marriages in which the wives work aren't necessarily happier even if they are more stable.
The effects on children remain unclear.
(Researcher Tish Wells contributed to this report.)