Where do women out-earn men? Hint: not a city.

Call it one small step for women, one little leap for pay equity.

In a handful of the nation's counties, the typical full-time working woman now earns more than her male counterpart - sometimes a lot more, according to census figures released this week.

One might expect to find these bastions of gender enlightenment in, say, Massachusetts (rated "best for women" last year by one women's group) or Minnesota (home of the nation's first pay-equity law for state government workers).

Instead, they're nestled in rural places few people have visited. And they're led by a small, no-stoplight county called, of all things, King, and located in a patch of north Texas where men still wrangle cattle and NOW refers to time rather than the National Organization for Women.

The idea that a handful of rural counties lead the nation in women's pay equity surprises many experts - not to mention the residents themselves.

"I'll be danged," exclaimed Traci Butler, secretary of King County's agricultural extension office upon hearing the news. The Monitor's finding challenges widely held notions about rural America's traditionalism.

In fact, rural women have long played important roles on the farm and in their communities. And as they move into paid jobs and elected positions - as they have in King County - their contributions are beginning to show up in income data. That's one reason, some rural observers speculate, women in the countryside seem to be catching up before their sisters in the cities and suburbs.

Pay-equity advocates aren't cheering, though. For one thing, the trend remains spotty. If a half-dozen or so counties have turned a corner, that leaves well over 3,000 that haven't. "So often, people reach for any shred of evidence" that women have reached equity, says Barbara Gault, research director for the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington.

But women still lag. While liberals and conservatives debate causes and remedies, everyone admits the gap has narrowed but still exists. Last year, women earned 76 cents for every dollar that their male counterparts received.

And that gap pops up virtually anywhere one looks: from Boston ($5,014) to San Francisco ($6,011) to Minneapolis ($4,553) to Miami ($3,975). It shows up in the nation's 25 largest metro areas, its 15 most densely packed urban counties, and its 15 least densely packed rural ones. The women of sparsely populated Eureka County, Nev., get paid only slightly more than half what the men make. (All these figures are for 1999, on which the 2000 census income data is based.)

But here and there, rural counties are beginning to break the mold. For example, looking solely at people who worked year-around and full-time, the Monitor found 15 counties, all rural, where women out-earn men.

Of course, much depends on how you count. Comparing the median incomes of all workers with earnings, part-time and full-time alike, another three counties jump to the fore, two of them urban. Curiously, no place makes both lists except King County, Texas.

Put another way: That particular stretch of north Texas is the only county in America where the typical working woman and the typical full-time working woman both bring home a bigger paycheck than their male counterparts. And the differences are substantial: $3,000 and $8,790, respectively.

Sometimes, a county is so small and the female earning edge so thin it's hard to say what's going on. Take Glasscock County in Texas (pop. 1,406; female advantage: $83 a year). Because the census only samples every sixth household for its income data, a mere $83 difference falls within the Census Bureau's margin of error. "It's very difficult" to draw conclusions from such small samples, says Steve Murdock, the Texas state demographer at Texas A&M University in College Station.

In other counties, unusual local conditions distort the numbers. For instance, demographers discount the two urban counties because they contain unusual local institutions. In Lexington, Va., (a city that operates like a county under Virginia's arcane system) a military academy undoubtedly pushes down the averages for males working part-time, says Julia Martin, a demographer at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Ditto for Sussex County, Va., which has just been added to the Richmond metro area and contains two maximum-security prisons for men.

Of the counties where full-time working women hold an advantage, seven boast a gap of at least $1,000 a year. All are rural, isolated, and sparsely populated. Six lie in the Great Plains. Most are small, especially King County (pop. 356). But even with such a small sample, King County's pay disparity between full-time working women and men is so large that it remains statistically significant, says Kirby Posey, a survey statistician with the Census Bureau who examined the numbers.

Perhaps the biggest clue to women's success in these counties lies in the career choices they and their spouses make. In all seven counties, at least a third of the men work in agriculture or related industries (such as commercial fishing in the Aleutians East Borough). At least a third of the women, meanwhile, work in healthcare, education, or government. (In the Aleutians, a quarter hold such jobs.) This trend mirrors a larger migration among all rural women to nonfarm service jobs.

"Many folks would be surprised to see the strong leadership roles women have taken in some of the most rural communities," says Chuck Hassebrook, director of the Center for Rural Affairs, a rural advocacy group in Walthill, Neb. They run for public office. They start small businesses. "In farming and ranching communities ... they've always played a critical economic role beyond just managing the household."

The move to jobs off the farm may make that economic role more visible, he adds. And as the fortunes of agriculture have waned, women's steady salaries have become more important. "It's not unusual that the wife with an off-farm job earns more than the farmer," Mr. Hassebrook says. "The real distinction may not be that women make more in those counties, but that men make less."

Of the 90 or so male workers in tiny King County, half work in agriculture (primarily ranching). Of the 59 working women, two-thirds labor in the schools or in local government. Four of the county's top elected posts - treasurer, tax assessor, clerk, and justice of the peace - are held by women. And because of the region's oil money, the county can afford to pay its 11 female teachers more than average.

The fact that local women earn more doesn't seem to have deflated any Texas-sized male egos - at least, not yet. "It doesn't bother me a bit," says County Judge Duane Daniel.

Seven counties where women out-earn men

The difference in median income between the genders, using 1999 data for full-time, year-round workers:

King (Texas) $8,790

Golden Valley (Montana) 5,035

Aleutians East Borough (Alaska) 3,484

Ziebach (South Dakota) 2,129

Blaine (Nebraska) 2,083

Bent (Colorado) 1,506

Crowley (Colorado) 1,107

Source: Census 2000

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