Dennis Cauchon, USA TODAY
She's a soldier. He's a stay-at-home dad.
She works at a booming software company. He's starting a graphic design business.
She's a business executive and electrical engineer. He's quit many jobs to move for her career advancements.
These are real-life examples of how changing gender roles and an evolving economy have reshaped American society in barely a generation - from an Ozzie and Harriet nation found in the classic 1950s sitcom to one in which Harriet is increasingly the breadwinner while Ozzie stays home with the kids.
A USA TODAY analysis of Census Bureau data reveals a revolution in the traditional roles of men and women that extends from college campuses to the workplace to the neighborhoods across this nation. Today, when one spouse works full-time and the other stays home, it's the wife who is the sole breadwinner in a record 23% of families, the analysis finds. When the Census started tracking this in 1976, the number was 6%.
Just as telling, wives outearn their husbands 28% of the time when both work, up from 16% 25 years ago. This means the wife is bringing home the bacon - or at least more bacon than her husband - in more than 12 million American families.
Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg (author of Lean In, which explores workplace biases) and Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer (who limited the company's telecommuting policy) have stirred debate about the complex choices occurring as women push themselves higher and higher up the economic ladder. The earning superiority of women over men isn't the rule, but it is increasingly common.
What does this mean in everyday life, not just in the executive suite? To find out, USA TODAY interviewed a dozen female breadwinners and many of their spouses about the role reversal - and how it's working. Several themes emerged:
Education. In nearly every case, the woman is better educated than the man. The wife and husband don't generally consider one smarter than the other. But the men often prefer doing things with their hands or outdoors, while the women excel in school and working at a desk.
Parenting. The role reversal has freed moms who prefer to work and dads who like to nurture. "Patience" - when Dad has it naturally and Mom doesn't - is the attribute both men and women cite for flipping traditional roles.
Health insurance. Who has it? Professional women generally have this precious commodity. Blue-collar men often don't. When kids arrive, the couple's decision is often a matter of familial responsibility.
WHERE EDUCATION MATTERS
The college gap is driving startling changes in financial equations between women and men. Women earned 57% of bachelor's degrees, 60% of master's degrees and 52% of doctoral degrees in 2010, the Education Department reports.
Tiffany Townsend, 36, of Nashville is a college-educated fundraiser. Her husband, Todd, 40, is a carpenter. They discussed having a second child. Financially, it would make sense for her husband to stay home rather than to use day care.
"I'm kind of wistful, wishing I had that option," Townsend says. "I even worry how others would judge me. Women who work are sometimes perceived as sacrificing family for career."
In most cases, the higher-earning working women interviewed by USA TODAY came from households in which their mother was a role model, working long and difficult hours outside the home.
Jill Kennel, 51, of Gresham, Ore., was raised on a Virginia farm. Mom worked in a grocery while Dad farmed. So it didn't seem radical when she became the family's sole breadwinner after her husband lost his landscape irrigation job during the economic downturn and his unemployment benefits ran out in 2011.
She's a software trainer and teaches part-time at community colleges. Her husband, Donald, 55, does the laundry and keeps house. Their children, a son and a daughter, are 17 and 20.
"He makes a wonderful househusband. If I had to sit at home, I'd go nuts," she says.
Donald Kennel is finishing his associate's degree, made affordable by the tuition benefits from his wife's teaching job. He hopes to start on a four-year college degree in the fall and become a civil engineer.
A SOLDIER, A STAY-HOME DAD
As a girl, Army Capt. Kaththea Stagg was told that she was too independent and homemaker was the proper role for a Southern girl. She would have none of that. She enlisted in the Army to rebel against her dad, then found that she loved the military.
After serving her enlisted obligation, Stagg went back to college and rejoined the Army as an officer. She met her future husband during her last year at college. He was a master electrician from Massachusetts working on a Veterans Administration hospital.
Figuring he was the typical sexist guy - sweet at first, then expecting her to change - Stagg didn't expect the relationship to survive her plans. But when she went to Officer's Candidate School in Georgia, he visited every weekend, then took a pay cut to live there. When she was assigned to South Carolina, he followed.
She told him she didn't want to have children alone and needed a stay-at-home dad. "I could do that," he said.
"So I asked him to marry me," recalls Stagg.
Kaththea Stagg and Tom Dunham, both now 33, were married in March 2008. He cares for their two sons, ages 2 and 4. She's in language school studying Korean at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
"From a numbers point of view," he says, "her career is hands down better than mine financially."
On Army posts, Tom Dunham is often the only stay-at-home dad around.
"The Army moms treat me like an outcast. They don't know what to think about a guy in their group," Dunham says. He hangs around with enlisted guys instead.
Dunham doesn't miss his electrician's job. It paid well but was brutal on his body, didn't provide health insurance, required working many holidays and was an unstable source of employment. Now, his time belongs to him and his children.
"You've got to handle your business like a mom," he says.
THE DETERMINED SINGLE MOM
Kim Spight, 40, a FedEx sales manager, got pregnant during her freshman year at Howard University in Washington. "I was young and dumb," she says.
Her hardworking mother, a military veteran, insisted that she not drop out of college. "The reason I work so hard now is that I saw my mother work so hard," Spight says.
During her 16-plus years at FedEx, Spight transferred twice with her daughter and earned a master's degree. She manages a 12-person sales team in Dallas.
"I don't know of anyone at the manager or director level who's in my situation, who is a single parent who had kids when they were young," Spight says.
She's persevered by remaining upbeat and spiritual. "I can't wallow in self-pity and say, 'Woe is me.' What good is that going to do?" Spight asks. "Every day is a great day."
Spight's daughter, 22, is like her mother. She got a job at 16 in fast food and works at Starbucks while attending college. Spight says her daughter's dad does odd jobs and lives with his mother.
"I love my work, but I still dream of getting a better-paying job, moving up, being more successful," she says.
STARTING A CREATIVE BUSINESS
Sarah and Dennis Buchanan got laid off from a small-town newspaper in North Carolina several years ago. She was an editor. He was chief photographer.
A year ago, she got a job at a fast-growing software company that pays twice what she made at the newspaper. Her success allowed her husband to start a graphic design firm - and to avoid returning to an old career as a long-haul truck driver.
"This is the first job I've had that I would consider a career," says Sarah Buchanan, 28. "It feels like a grown-up job."
Dennis Buchanan, 44, is thrilled by her success: "Her cubicle lifestyle has allowed me to push the envelope, to take chances I couldn't normally do."
He still has his commercial driver's license. "I could get on the phone and have a job this afternoon," he says.
But that grueling life - 21 days on the road, 10 days off - is a single man's game, he says. Instead, with a camera and a laptop, he is inventing a business selling full-color, two-sided business cards. "Sometimes I can't sleep at night. The excitement of making this work is so great that it consumes me," he says.
His wife adds, "He's a very creative person. Sitting in a truck all day is not creative."
She has a college education; he doesn't. Her corporate job has health insurance, a crucial benefit because she is a Type I diabetic.
The couple's next challenge: When they have a child, both want to stay home.
THE BRUISED MALE EGO
Sherrie Daseler, 49, is an electrical engineer and plant quality manager at a large medical instrument manufacturer. She has transferred locations seven times as her career advanced. She travels extensively, sometimes overseas, for her job in Holdrege, Neb.
Her husband, Jim, 51, has been a great stay-at-home dad. But the traditional "housewife" role has been a life's disappointment for him.
"I'm kind of expected to have meals made and laundry done. I'm doing it, but it's not what I was hoping for in life," he says.
The path they've taken makes total financial sense. Unlike his wife, Jim doesn't have a college education.
"Sherrie is a fantastic woman, extremely intelligent and the hardest worker you'll ever find," he says. "She earns enough, so I don't have to work."
Jim worked in corrections, construction and as a maintenance manager of a Hilton hotel, a job he loved. Moving every few years and the need for child care made it hard to sustain a work career.
The couple treat the money she earns communally. They have known each other since 1981 and have three children, ages 12, 16 and 18. In many ways, it's a traditional home, except with gender roles reversed.
"I couldn't do all that I do if it were not for him," Sherrie says. "His support has been priceless."
Contributing: Paul Overberg