'Within heterosexual couples, the logic of the biggest salary often prevails,' observes journalist Lucile Quillet

·7-min read
Lucile Quillet, author of "Le Prix à payer", published by Éditions Les Liens qui Libèrent

"When you're in love, you don't think about the cost." That's an adage that couples, especially women in couples, often follow to the letter. The problem is that in the event of separation, women get left behind, while the spouse's locomotive chugs on. This is a common occurrence even though women work more than men overall. But the problem is that the value of their work is not recognized, outlines French journalist Lucile Quillet, who has written a book on the subject. "Le prix à payer: ce que le couple hétérosexuel coûte aux femmes," [French only, 'The price to pay: the cost of heterosexual couplehood to women'] was published in France this week.

How much does a woman spend throughout her life on beauty products, beauty treatments, contraception or even on sessions with a sex therapist in the aim of spicing up one's intimate life or boosting one's libido? These societal obligations, which weigh heavily on women, can -- if we extend the famous concept of the mental load -- be referred to as forming a kind of "aesthetic," "sexual" and "emotional" load that women bear. And, just like the mental load, they require time and energy. But they also require money, points out Lucile Quillet, author of " Le prix à payer ," published this week by Les Liens qui Libèrent.

In this 245-page work, the journalist, who specializes in gender inequality, draws up precise figures on the costs incurred throughout a woman's life as a partner of a man, from the time of being single -- but potentially dating or looking for a mate -- to being in a relationship through separation. On page 50, the author suggests an exercise of calculation that may seem trivial, but which generally has very revealing results. She tells her female readers to go into their bathroom, look at the contours surrounding the sink and the shower and then open the cabinets and count all the products she uses and then tally up their value, and then compare the total estimated value with that of her partner's grooming products. For Lucile Quillet, she tallied up about 1000 euros on her side, compared to 4.99 euros for her partner!

And what about the wage gap [observed in many countries, and estimated in France to concern 75% of couples where men earn more than their wives, according to INSEE- Ed], as well as the unpaid and 'invisible' domestic work of women and their economic insecurity? For example the fact that the more children there are in a household, the more likely it is for a woman to go part-time or quit their job altogether. It is this ratio between money spent and "the money that women will never get" that Lucile Quillet sets out to examine, through both figures and personal accounts of women. We asked the author a few questions about what she discovered.

Your book is subtitled: "The cost of heterosexual couplehood to women." However, from the very beginning you explain that these expenses begin when a woman is single. Why did you include this aspect?

I wanted to approach heterosexual couplehood beyond the classic union between a man and a woman, that is to say in its dimension as part of a quest for an "ideal life," because heterosexuality remains the "example to follow" in our societies. One "must" be loved and be in a couple in order to start a family... especially for a woman. This compulsion turns into a mental load: women feel obligated to make efforts in order to be "the right candidate." This can then translate into an aesthetic load. According to my calculations, hair removal represents, for example, costs of about 20,000 euros over a period of 35 years, if we take into account salon treatments, equipment or sessions of laser treatment.

When someone argues that these women are free to spend (or not) on such things, how do you respond?

To say that women have this choice is, in my opinion, to negate society's role here. Because a woman who doesn't wear makeup, doesn't do her hair or doesn't wax is too often perceived as a woman who doesn't "make an effort" and who isn't motivated to get into a relationship. These aesthetic codes of the "male gaze" are omnipresent in our society and go far beyond the couple. There is thus from the start an imbalance at the level of the investment of women and of the other side.

You also frequently make reference in the book to the money that "women will never have"? What money are we talking about exactly?

In order to assess this money they will never have, I think we need to reinterpret the concept of "value of work." Work is an activity that frees up time and opportunities for other people. But women work a lot, certainly more than men, if we add up the work they do in their careers and the work they do at home (taking care of children, managing household chores, etc).

However, this domestic work is not paid and most of the time benefits the spouse, since the logic of the highest salary often prevails. The career of the person whose work pays the most is favored (thus, within heterosexual couples, 75% of times men). Men continue to work full time and capitalize on the long term in their name alone. Women therefore work at home for the benefit of their spouse's career, and by extension that of society: they create value that they do not themselves receive.

You also explain that men and women are not likely to invest in the same items when it comes to expenditures within the couple?

Spending within couples is indeed strongly gendered. For example, women invest more in food and household goods, while men favor more "valuable" expenses such as the purchase of a car, furniture or electronic goods. However, during a separation, it is the "hard goods," and not "perishable" goods that get included in the bill. This is what I call "Mrs. Toilet Paper and Mr. Car."

Could wealth and expenses be better distributed, in a more satisfactory way, in a non-heterosexual couple?

I haven't studied that question, but I think it would be interesting research territory! Because the inequalities mentioned above are rooted in the distribution of gender roles. So we can potentially assume that being freed from this heteronormative division could help erase -- at least partially -- these inequalities.

You specify at the end of your book that money is "just a pretext" for discussing all that men, and by extension society, owe to women. What kinds of measures would be effective in reducing this debt?

The most important thing in my opinion is for there to be public recognition of the value of women's work, which I think is a real issue of social justice. This could be done mainly by paying women for the invisibilized work they do in the home. We could also introduce longer paternity leave [in France it is currently 28 days, -Ed], increase the number of day-care centers and better value parental work within companies, for example by not holding evening meetings.

And on a more intimate level, especially within the couple?

I think the first thing to do is have the courage to talk about money as a couple. To be able to say that even if we love each other deeply, this does not exempt us from keeping count. That said, while it can be useful to be responsible as a couple on this level, we mustn't forget that such reflection is primarily the responsibility of society.

You also suggest that we revise our vocabulary, for example by stopping saying that housewives "don't work" or "don't have a job" and by talking about "parental work" rather than "maternity leave"... Why is this important when it comes to changing mentalities?

These two terms are totally hypocritical! Once again, when we take care of children, we take care of society: we instill values in tomorrow's citizens, we contribute to relieving overcrowding in day-care centers, etc. It is therefore high time that these activities were recognized as a real profession. And this means stopping talking about "maternity leave," which implies the notion of taking a vacation! As for saying that housewives don't work, I think that this can contribute to reinforcing the numerous stereotypes that they are"kept" and "spendthrifts." Even though, as we've seen, they are the ones who make it possible for their spouses to get rich!

This interview has been translated from French.

Léa Drouelle

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