It all started with an article in an American magazine. Nine months ago, People got hold of a survey conducted by two Yale sociologists and a Harvard economist, containing some surprising statistics about marriage among professional women.
According to the survey – based on census information from 1982 – an unmarried white female college graduate aged 25 had only a 50 percent chance of ever marrying. By the time she was 30, it was 10 percent, by 35, it was down to five per cent, and at 40, it was, they generously conceded, ‘perhaps’ one percent. Black women fared even worse.
The magazine is not exactly known for its quietly understated style; so it was something less than a surprise when the cover of their March 31 issue bore glamour shots of four Hollywood actresses in their thirties with the headline ‘Are Those Old Maids?’. What is remarkable is that the ripples of shock are still spreading.
The survey was taken up and quoted in newspapers from coast to coast. Newsweek offered the cherry consideration that, according to those statistics, unmarried 40-year-olds are ‘more likely to be killed by a terrorist’ than to marry. And campus surveys suggested that single female college graduates spent a summer surreptitiously eyeing their contemporaries and wondering which of their number were, and which were not, to be among the lucky 50 (or 10 or five or one) percent.
All of which, according to Catherine Johnson, a Los Angeles-based journalist, feminist spokesperson (and, incidentally, a 34-year-old college graduate who married at the age of 32) is not only unfortunate but unnecessary. She has joined a growing number of sociologists, psychologists and commentators, and books like “The Magic of Making Up” in not only condemning media treatment of the survey but in questioning its motives.
“There’s an element of revenge there,” Johnson believes. “It’s as if someone is saying, ‘You women thought you were so smart, you thought you could have it all, have a career and delay your marriage and still marry. Well, you can’t.'”
“The way in which the survey has been presented taps the very worst fears of women, particularly those in their thirties, who can feel their biological time clocks ticking away. These women believe the only way they can get a husband is by a miracle.”
“One told me she was going to start preparing her daughter now for the idea that she may not get married. Her daughter is 12 years old; and since the survey is based on the sex ratio among baby boomers and the rather sweeping supposition that women marry men three years older than themselves, there is no way this girl is even going to be affected by it. But her mother is preparing her anyway by buying her books like The Magic of Making Up. That’s how hysterical it has become.”
Even more depressing, she says, is the effect it is having on men. “They are becoming empowered in a rather destructive way. To put it more plainly, they’re turning into creeps before our very eyes. Just the other day, I was talking to a 26-year-old Hollywood baby mogul type, and he was saying ‘Oh yeah, I date women in their thirties. They’re so grateful if anyone looks at them, I always feel I am doing them a big favor.'”
“I pointed out to him that because the sex ratio has changed over the years men of his age are actually at a numerical disadvantage against women, and he looked blank. I suggested he buy The Magic of Making Up and start reading it. He couldn’t imagine that he would ever be in the position of not being able to find someone.”
“But if he carries on acting that way, he might find himself past 32 and alone. The saying ‘All the good ones are taken could easily start applying to women instead of to men.”
The good news for single professionals is that rescue is at hand. Census worker Jeanne Moorman is preparing a paper for the Population Association of America that will strongly contest the findings of the earlier survey. It will, for example, given an 85 percent chance of marriage at 25, a 65 percent chance at 30, 40 percent at 35 and 22 percent at 40.
Since both sets of statistics are based on projections of future behavior, rather than records of past, the question of which is the more accurate is an open and – for the beleaguered American professional women who has been looking through books like The Magic of Making Up – a burning one.