Does My “Wife” Have a “Job”?

Six years ago I took an academic post at a liberal arts college with a heavy teaching load about 4 hours away from Syracuse, New York, where my wife works as a middle school teacher and where we own a home. Consequently, I commute back and forth every week during the fall and spring semesters. Many of my academic friends and colleagues ask me, “Can’t your wife get a job where you work?,” or “You’ve got a good publication record; why don’t you apply for jobs at more research-oriented universities?” Arguably, there are some latent sexist or patriarchal assumptions underlying these questions.

Presumably as someone who identifies as an academic, I have a career — perhaps even a “vocation” — whereas my wife, a public school teacher, has a mere job. Careers have trajectories and involve planning, nurturing, the accumulation of social capital, networking, and so on. A job by contrast could be picked up or discarded for another job which would be its functional equivalent. Why can’t she just swap jobs so I can pursue my career?

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Two key questions come to my mind. First, is there a latent assumption of male privilege, that my career would be more important than hers? Or is it assumed that as a woman, my wife can’t have a “career”? Is it that men have careers, but women have jobs? Second, if it is the case that a woman could in fact have a career, is it nevertheless automatically assumed that academic careers are more important than careers in public education? Is it possible that primary and secondary teacher education is belittled in contrast to college teaching because the former is traditionally and historically populated by women and the latter by men? Are primary and secondary teaching roles feminine and college professorships masculine—making the latter more important?

It turns out that my wife does, in fact, have a career. She’s nurtured her career through involvement with regional and state organizations (the Central New York Council for Social Studies and the New York State Council for Social Studies), for which she’s served as an officer, helped plan conferences, etc.; she’s earned tenure at her school and has a level of seniority that protects her from layoffs due to budget cuts; she has developed social capital as a union representative in her district; and so on. Because college-level academic disciplinary networks are national, my social capital and career could easily transfer to a new institutional context within the same nation; however, because of the local structural organization of school districts and teacher networks, my wife’s social capital would not transfer, for instance, to a new state within the same nation. If we moved to a new state — while I might be able to carry on as before with my career — her career would more or less have to start from scratch; she would need to build an all new local network of colleagues, involve herself anew in regional organizations, etc.

Reading assumptions into casual conversations is a precarious endeavor, and the questions I’ve asked above are just that — questions. I’m really not sure how to answer them. A part of me is tempted to chalk it up to the fact that of course people talking to me focus on me rather than my wife. However, my wife has pointed out to me — interestingly — that while in general people ask both of us about whether she will follow me (i.e., they will directly ask her why she doesn’t take a job where I work), I have never been asked why I haven’t left my position to follow her.

For all of these reasons, there is something odd about the way otherwise progressive colleagues ask me questions about my “wife” and her “job,” questions that certainly seem to have some latent sexist baggage. How different would it be if they asked about my “partner” and her “career”?

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2 thoughts on “Does My “Wife” Have a “Job”?

  1. I think it has less to do with sexism or patriarchy and more to do with you being a college professor and your wife being a public school teacher. I’ve heard the exact same comments made to female academics who have husbands or partners (male or female) in jobs/careers that are perceived as more portable. And I know female and male academics who were “followed” by their public school teacher partners to a new institution. I think public school teacher is considered a portable profession. Certain jobs/careers are found everywhere, and thus especially in academic circles those are considered “nice” for a partner to have since the perception is that it would be possible to fine a job. How much truth there is to this and how much it discounts the careers, connections, and ease of which it is to move is a different story. But it can’t be denied that in every town and county in the country there are public school teachers, doctors, nurses, accountants, and lawyers. So if you have one of those jobs, there are really no geographic limitations on you from a practical standpoint.

    For many other jobs/careers of course this isn’t the case. There are those where it is much more favorable to be in certain cities, such as LA for entertainment, NYC for fashion and advertising, DC for politics/federal government. And then there are a lot of jobs where what you do just isn’t available in the city or region you’re in: aerospace engineering, software, investment banking, marine biologist, etc. Finally, there are jobs like being an academic where often times you just have to go where you get the job no matter what because that’s the only job you can get if you want to stay in your profession. I really think this is mostly what is driving your colleagues comments.

    Also, that yes, being a college professor holds a different “status” than being a public school teacher. Whether it is more “important”, depends on what important means. But while you’ve made a good argument for how your wife has built a career as a public school teacher and why it would be difficult to leave, I’m sure your colleagues perceive your (and their) careers to have been a longer and more difficult path and thus harder to change or give up. And to some extent they are probably right. Becoming an academic usually requires 10+ years of higher education and very stressful and difficult work, and if you are lucky enough to snag a tenure track job that’s not something to give up or change easily. There are these “status” differences even within professions: neurosurgeon vs family practice doctor, big firm lawyer vs single practice. It’s a perception (with more than some truth) that the work, time, and sacrifice for these positions is different.

    So to summarize, I think it’s more about you being a professor and her a public school teacher with all the realities and perceptions (right and wrong) about those jobs/careers, than you being a he and her being a she.

  2. You might be right. I was serious about those questions being just questions—I’m really not sure how to account for this. Your account is equally (or even more) plausible.

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