Does Female Breadwinner Equal ‘Sugar Mamma’?

For years now, the number of women who are the primary or sole earners in their household has been on the rise. About a third of married women, according to Census data, are the breadwinners.

But is this trend — which has been accelerated by the recession — something to celebrate?

Absolutely, says financial expert and author Manisha Thakor, who wrote about it this week in a blog post entitled “The Rise of the Sugar Mamma“:

I define the modern “Sugar Mamma” as a woman who wants to be in the financial driver’s seat of her life. She views money as a tool that gives her a voice and increases her life choices. She likes earning an income because it gives her control and the freedom to create the life that makes her heart sing.

With much respect to Thakor, whose work I admire, I must protest.

I get that Thakor wants to turn the tables on the old notion of women being dependent on a “sugar daddy” by showing that many higher-earning women are economically able to support themselves and their spouses and families.

I also agree that we could use a better moniker than “female breadwinner,” which is clunky, or “alpha wife,” which implies a certain level of competition and hostility within a marriage that may not be there.

The trouble with “sugar mamma” is that its “sugar daddy” roots are tainted by an arrangement that was (and is) paternalistic at best, degrading at worst, and ultimately about sex for money.

Putting history aside, sugar mamma also sounds a little too cotton-candy for my taste — and my experience as being the long-time breadwinner for my family. That responsibility is damned uncomfortable, and of the scores of couples I’ve interviewed on this topic over the last few years, I don’t know a single one who would disagree.

That said, by taking a stab at a new, more celebratory term, Thakor does something no one else has: She paints the rise of breadwinner women in brighter, more modern colors. In an email, Thakor told me that she sees some women “reclaiming the term ‘sugar daddy’ in the feminine” to mean a woman who is in control of her career, her life, and her money — “not waiting for someone else to give her the power or resources to make those decisions.”

Thakor also notes that people’s eyes glaze over when you refer to these achievers as “empowered women” (sad, but true). “By using a phrase as shocking to the senses as ‘Sugar Mamma,’” she writes, “you force people to … look at the situation with new eyes, to envision the reverse of a Sugar Daddy, to ask how we can reach harmonious equality where both genders fully prosper.”

Now I need to hear from other female breadwinners (and the men who love them): What do you think of the name “sugar mamma”? Got a better name for the phenomenon?

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