Blondie Bumstead: Breadwinner


September 10, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- On Labor Day Morning, 1991, Blondie Boopadoop Bumstead, 35 years old and holding, had an epiphany over her coffee cup. Worn out from cooking and cleaning lo these many decades, the suburban housewife of comic strip fame suddenly figured a way out of her domesticity. ''I could go out and get a job.''

Bing! Light bulbs flash! Cameras roll! Sweetheart, get me ''The Today Show''!

Not since Nora left the Doll's House, has one wife's change garnered quite this much attention. But Nora was ahead of her time. Blondie isn't exactly a trend-setter among her peers. More than three quarters of the women in her age group (where she has lingered longer than Jack Benny) are already in the workforce.

Nevertheless, this is something of a landmark. Blondie began comic strip life over 60 years ago as a gold-digging flapper. Back then, Dagwood Bumstead was the daffy heir to a railroad family that owned, as it was said, the right side of the tracks, the wrong side and the tracks themselves.

When the Depression deepened, these true lovers got married despite Poppa Bumstead's disapproval. Disinherited, Dagwood got a job. They moved to the suburbs, had two kids, a dog and remained in their 30s ever after.

In some ways the Bumsteads have been emblems of the American family and the American economy. Dagwood, for all his ditziness, has had one job his entire work life. Even in the '80s, as other American companies down-sized and streamlined, this long-abused white-collar worker kept his job. While other companies were being taken over, Dithers and Co. dithered along. Even Dagwood's metabolism and eating habits managed to stay the same.

As for Blondie, over the years this white-collar wife also kept her supportive role. She never did get proper credit for her invention of the Dagwood sandwich. She never got any kudos for getting her husband out of the house every morning and into the car pool.

But now that she's decided to get a job, she's doing the ''nets,'' making all the talk shows. Even the secretary of labor is interested in how this newest entry will fare in the workplace: ''Some of the skills Blondie had will have to be re-honed.''

Once again, Dagwood and Blondie are getting back in touch with what's happening to the American family that lives paycheck to paycheck: two paychecks.

How then can we help Blondie to mark her momentous entry into the working-woman world after all these years? A few tips and tidbits are in order.

The good news is that things are better for working women. The gap between male and female wages has narrowed. The bad news is that one reason it's narrowed is because men's wages are falling.

Despite all those years at home with Dagwood and the kids, Blondie's earning capacity won't be much worse than that of other women. If she is typical, her earnings will peak at about age 40-45 at $22,000. This is, however, just about what the average man earns between 25 and 29.

This longtime kitchen worker has decided -- at least for the moment -- to become a caterer. She will joining the fastest growing part of the American economy, women-owned small businesses.

This will supply her with a lot of flexibility. She can be there when Alexander and Cookie get home from school or from the mall. But she'll get none of the perks: vacations, pensions, health insurance. If Dagwood can hold on at Dithers, if Dithers doesn't ++ wither, they will discover the basic economic fact of life in the '90s: two workers equal one good job.

About the household drudgery she's trying to avoid? Well, if she follows the pattern, Blondie will do less housework than before. But she'll still do most of the work that gets done. Home will become her second shift.

In any case, with luck, this was the last week Blondie will ever tTC have to ask Dagwood for pocket money. If the studies are right, as an employed spouse, she'll start sharing financial decisions. Her job will give them an extra ounce of two-job security, keep the refrigerator stocked with sandwich stuffing, and if Blondie makes it in business, they may even afford to get the kids out of the strip and off to college.

Oh yes, one final piece of advice to this wife. Ms. Bumstead,

when you get out there in the work world, for gawdsakes, don't let the guys still call you Blondie.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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