Seeing that my previous post on this topic has attracted a lot of attention, I decided to write a sequel. Since it's raining I can't use my coffee break to sit outside reading a trashy novel anyway, so I could just as well do something productive instead:)
In her book "Fascinating Womanhood" Helen Andelin has a chapter called "The Feminine Role vs. The Working Wife", in which she discusses a number of situations where the wife may be justified in working. Those situations include husbands being disabled and compelling financial emergencies. That's about how I see it, too.
A sudden loss of income due to unemployment or sickness/disability can happen to anyone, but that's not your typical, everyday situation for many two-income couples. A lot of wives who work do it "to ease the pinch", as Mrs Andelin puts it, or to afford luxuries. That's what she says on the issue: "You may not have enough money to cover expenses. There are too many things you need and can't afford...you seek employment, perhaps with your husband's approval. The problem with getting a job is that it's not worth the price you pay...Instead of going to work, cut expenses: Move to a less expensive home, sell one car...buy clothes at second-hand shops, and in other ways be thrifty." (p.284, Bantam Books, 1992).
Whatever your level of income is, if you don't manage your finances well, you still may end up in debt. I'm not talking about mortgages or students' loans, but about consumer/credit card debts. It's very easy to overspend, and it doesn't have to be a huge sum at first, but if you overdraw your account every month just for a small sum of money, by the end of the year you will be in a serious trouble.
Another reason so many women work is the desire for luxuries. To quote FW again: "You may work for...the latest household equipment, new furniture...a better house, or better clothes. Your husband may encourage you to work to satisfy his taste for luxuries - a boat, swimming pool, or cabin in the mountains. Or you may want greater advantages for your children...Justified as these desires may seem, the sacrifice is too great. It's better to trim the luxuries." (idem).
It's interesting that it's often people with high income who complain about life being so expensive that they both have to work. It seems that a bus driver can afford for his wife to stay home, but a surgeon can't.
The way to financial success is the good money management. To quote Helen Andelin again: "If your husband's income is low, you can be the key figure in the financial success of your family, being in a position to make him or break him. Families with low incomes sometimes live in more comfort than those with more, due to the skill of money management." (F.W., p.146, Bantam Books, 1992).
I think that it sums it all up quite nicely. Women used to be proud of their ability to stretch their husbands' paychecks as far as they could and men used to be proud to be the breadwinners. I'm sure that this way of life is still possible for most people if they only would give it a try.