Why there are no good men left
A PAGE ABOUT THE SAME MATTER HERE and
ANOTHER PAGE ABOUT THE SAME AUTHOR HERE
ARE NO GOOD MEN LEFT-The
Romantic Plight of the New Single Woman
by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead.
By PATRICIA COHEN
Want to cash in on the latest publishing trend? Here are a few tips on how you too can write a book about single women and their often angst-filled quest to get married.
1) Mention those tough-as-nails, heart-of-gold singles on "Sex and the City" as soon as possible, quickly followed by references to "Bridget Jones' Diary" and the infamous 1986 Newsweek article that mistakenly said 40-year-old women had better odds of being killed by a terrorist than getting married.
2) Point out that although there are scads of books arguing that the blame lies with a) women b) men c) Darwin d) the 60's e) your mother, no one before you has really bothered to pay attention to (insert your theory here).
3) Interview a small, unrepresentative group of smart, beautiful, accomplished white women and then explain why "Blair's" or "Betty's" particular experience has universal meaning for women everywhere.
4) State your thesis, and then keep repeating it until the reader wants to throw the book and herself out the window.
Now get ready for your close-up on the "Today" show.
Whether or not Barbara Dafoe Whitehead has already been booked by NBC, her "Why There Are No Good Men Left" fits quite comfortably among the avalanche of pop sociology and advice books about women and marriage — or rather, their lack thereof.
Ms. Whitehead caused something of a furor back in 1994 with an article she published in The Atlantic Monthly, titled "Dan Quayle Was Right," arguing that divorce irreparably damaged children.
With this latest book, Ms. Whitehead, who is now a co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, focuses her attention not on the problems created by getting out of a marriage, but the problem of getting into one in the first place.
The complaint about the lack of good men is certainly familiar to urban middle-class baby boomers, not to mention anyone who has access to a television and a bookstore. Indeed, she understands that what makes the slew of pulp novels about single woman notable is not their artistry or accuracy but their popularity. As she says, "if not sociologically true, Chick Lit nonetheless captures an emotional truth about women's dissatisfactions with men and the contemporary dating scene."
Yet those looking for an answer to the question posed in the book's title are likely to be disappointed. Ms. Whitehead doesn't so much explain why there are so few good men as why there are so many great women.
The generation of "new single women" are the result of what Ms. Whitehead calls the "Girl Project," a three decades long undertaking that has amounted to a "broad-based overhaul of girl-rearing practices," preparing women to be self-sufficient, independent and sexually liberated.
Actually the refreshing celebration of these high-achievers is what distinguishes Ms. Whitehead's work from similar efforts. Instead of reciting dreary statistics about how tough it is to find a mate, Ms. Whitehead points out that women with college degrees are actually more likely to marry and less likely to get divorced. She cites one study by two sociologists at Princeton University and published in The American Sociological Review last year, that said, "We predict that marriage levels will be highest for those women who are, in theory, most able to live well alone — the most highly educated."
Of course very little of this is new. It's just that the plight-of-the-single-woman genre tends to portray the most glorious achievements of the women's rights movement as bitter Pyrrhic victories, turning these extraordinary women into pathetic victims of a feminism that fooled them into thinking they could have it all.
Whether that emphasis is a calculated marketing strategy or not is tough to say. Perhaps it is too cynical to note that the example of Sylvia Ann Hewlett's recent book, "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children," must weigh heavily on the minds of publishers. Ms. Hewlett's book — a media sensation — nonetheless sold few copies, which some in the business attributed to its depressing message about the dangers of ignoring your biological clock in order to pursue a career.
Opportunistic or not, though, Ms. Whitehead is to be commended for the cheerleading.
The problem is that once you get past that useful booster, there isn't much that you haven't heard or read many times before: women's gains in education, jobs and sports; the later age of marriage; how men can now get all the benefits of marriage without any of the responsibility; the competition with younger, less accomplished women; the cautionary tales of disappointed women and so on.
What Ms. Whitehead has chosen to focus on is how the social infrastructure that was designed to help young women meet marriageable men no longer exists. One can laugh at traditionally elaborate courtship rituals, but they accomplished their task of getting young men and women paired off. Now, since women are marrying later, after they have left college with its ready-made pool of single men, they are left to accomplish this formidable task on their own. Many then make the mistake of co-habiting, deluding themselves into thinking it will lead to marriage.
So far, the only ones who have tried to provide sorely needed match-making services are those looking to make a buck — tech entrepreneurs who have created Internet dating services or the jewelry industry, which invented "pre-engagement rings" to help ease men slowly toward the real thing. Ms. Whitehead thinks all these are great, and the rest of society is going to have to catch up. (Some, it seems, are already working on it: Judith Regan, the high-powered, 40-something publisher, has enlisted Howard Stern to use his radio show to help her find a man.) Meanwhile, women who really want to get married and have kids need to plan and focus on getting married earlier — essentially the same advice that the alarmist Ms. Hewlett gives.
And while Ms. Whitehead tries to give her book historical and sociological heft, her attempts often fall flat. Noting how a new technology and a new social or economic trend can influence each other, she compares the emergence of Internet dating and the growing number of older singles to the creation of atomic weapons and the start of the cold war. Huh?!
If you want an insight into the single girl's life, try ordering in Chinese food and switching on "Sex and the City." It may not be true to life, but it is more fun.
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead speaks and writes about family and child wellbeing. Her work has appeared in many publications, including American Enterprise, Commonweal, Woodrow Wilson Quarterly, Slate, Times Literary Supplement, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Reader’s Digest, Los Angeles Times, and Boston Globe. A 1995 Atlantic Monthly piece, "The Failure of Sex Education," earned an editorial award from Folio Magazine and the Cowles Foundation. She is the author of The Divorce Culture (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997).
Currently, she serves on Massachusetts’ Governor’s Commission on Responsible Fatherhood and Family Support and the Religion and Public Values Task Force of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
Whitehead grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin. She earned a B.A. from the University of Wisconsin, studied at Columbia University as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in American social history at the University of Chicago. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Published Feb. 10, 2003
"Why There are No Good Men Left: The Romantic Plight of the New Single Woman" by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, (Broadway Books, 2003, $22.95).
By Susan Reimer
It seems that, before they know it, those same parents working so hard to keep their precious daughter unsullied by grasping teenage boys will be wondering if she will ever find Mr. Right.
According to social historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of "Why There Are No Good Men Left: The Romantic Plight of the New Single Woman," 30 years of overhauling the way we raise girls -- to be independent, self-sufficient and sexually liberated -- has had the unintended result of producing 30-something career women who look up from the dials on their Stairmaster to realize that all the eligible men are married.
Men and women are waiting longer to marry: age 25 for women, 27 for men. But a woman in her 30s is three times more likely to be single today than her counterpart in the 1970s.
These women have "aged out" of the college dating pool -- the perfect system for pairing off like-minded men and women -- and find that their work-and-workout lifestyle doesn't create much opportunity to meet possible husbands, Whitehead writes.
Worse, these women find they are competing against 20-something rivals for whatever decent men remain unattached.
Whitehead is also a director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, which reported in a companion survey the makings of an epidemic among men of the "Peter Pan Complex."
Researchers found that men are in no hurry to get married these days and are not in a hurry to have children because they know they can wait almost as long as they want. And they are suspicious of the 30-something woman because they can hear her body clock ticking from the other end of the bar.
"Men see marriage as a final step in a prolonged process of growing up," the researchers reported.
While David Popenoe, Whitehead's partner in the Marriage Project, predicts dark consequences for women and children if men cannot be enticed into married life, Whitehead, who made her reputation by detailing the devastation of divorce on children, is less overwrought.
"This book isn't about a social problem," she told the Atlantic magazine. "It's about an important set of social changes."
If college-educated women who have postponed marriage and family for a decade while they make their mark on the world are unable to find a mate, then society will have to rewrite the dating rituals to allow that to happen.
Specifically, she writes of the Internet as a mating tool, for instance, not as a place for sleazy anonymity, but as a technology for saving time and managing information.
Why There Are No Good Men Left: The Romantic
Plight of the New Single Woman
by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead
320 pages, $23.95
Atlantic Unbound | December 18, 2002
In Search of Mr. Right
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, the author of Why There Are No Good Men Left, discusses the challenges facing today's single women, and argues that the contemporary courtship system needs to be transformed
Odds are that the pulled-together young woman you encounter riding up in the elevator, emerging from the gym, or riding the subway wearing sleek professional attire but no wedding ring is struggling to meet someone to spend her life with. The thirty-something woman of today is three times more likely to be single than her counterpart of the 1970s. Indeed, both women and men—particularly those with high levels of education—are staying single far longer into their adult years than in previous eras. For both groups this delayed search for a spouse is a deliberate choice, but the effect of that delay on the two sexes is dramatically different.
For men, the change in timing is merely an incidental matter with few repercussions. For women, however, the delay makes the search more difficult, fraught with anxiety, and shadowed by the possibility of ultimate failure. It is this pervasive anxiety on the part of unmarried young women that explains the current popularity of such movies, television shows, and books as Bridget Jones' Diary, Sex and the City, and Cowboys Are My Weakness, all of which feature thirty-something women struggling to find men.
In a new book, Why There Are No Good Men Left: The Romantic Plight of the New Single Woman, the social historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead considers the challenges facing the contemporary single woman in her search for a mate, and argues that the prevailing courtship system must be transformed. Inspired in part by the fact that both of her own thirty-something daughters are single, Whitehead (who is the director of a scholarly organization called the National Marriage Project) undertook an informal study of the issue—poring over demographic studies, surveys, focus-group transcripts, self-help books, and popular fiction, and personally interviewing sixty single women in their late twenties and early thirties.
What she found was that at the time in their lives when they feel ready for a partner, young women are at a loss as to how to find one. Contemporary young women, she points out, have been raised to seek fulfilling careers rather than husbands. And upon college graduation they want to spend time out on their own, making their mark on the world, rather than pairing off right away and exchanging their independence for family life.
The problem, she explains, is that when these women reach their late twenties or thirties and at last become interested in settling down, the large pool of eligible young men to which they had access in college—with backgrounds and ambitions similar to their own—has disappeared. A woman at this stage in her life is likely to be trapped in a somewhat narrow routine that includes work, working-out, and socializing with a circle of friends. Her odds of encountering her future spouse in these limited spheres are extremely low.
The difficulties of the woman no longer fresh out of college are compounded by the fact that, as time passes, she is increasingly faced with competition from younger women. And if her life goals include not just marriage but children as well, then she must keep in mind that her time frame is limited. Many women in this situation begin to feel a growing sense of panic, as they fear that their chances for the life they envisioned for themselves are slipping away.
Though conservative commentators have argued that the obvious solution is for women to go back to looking for their spouses while still in college, Whitehead dismisses such views, pointing out that women who wait longer to marry are more mature, more financially secure, and have a better sense of who they could happily spend their lives with than those who marry earlier. Moreover, studies have shown that later marriages tend to be unusually stable and long-lasting.
What needs to change, then, she suggests, is not the contemporary woman's postponement of the search for a spouse, but the courtship system itself. A well-functioning courtship system, she emphasizes, should succeed in bringing a society's eligible young people into appropriate partnerships. But today's courtship system fails on that count, leaving singles who have aged out of the college scene to fend for themselves.
She expresses confidence, however, that given the urgency of the need, new courtship mechanisms—tailored to fit the needs of busy professionals with limited time (both in the day and in their window for finding appropriate partners)—will spring up to fill the void. Already, she points out, such innovations as online introduction services and "SpeedDating" events have emerged on the scene and appear to be flourishing. It will take some creative ingenuity, she argues, and a good understanding of the aspirations of today's single women, but with a concerted effort, society should be able to "revive [women's] flagging faith that it is possible to find lasting love and to integrate a loving marriage into a life of individual career achievement."
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead holds
a PhD. in American social history from the University of Chicago. She has
written for a number of publications, including Slate, The Times
Literary Supplement, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal,
The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The Boston Globe.
Her previous book,
The Divorce Culture
(1997), was an expansion of her controversial Atlantic Monthly article
"Dan Quayle Was Right"
(April 1993). She has three adult children and lives in Amherst, Massachusetts
with her husband.
I spoke with her recently by telephone.
You mention in the acknowledgments that you have two single daughters in their
thirties. What role did they play in the conception and writing of this book?
Their life experience certainly influenced my thinking. I have a big extended family, and in addition to my two daughters, I have four nieces, ranging in age from their mid-twenties to their mid-thirties, who are also single women, living and working in big cities. I couldn't help but notice how different their early adult lives are from the early adult lives of women of my generation. So I guess in that way my daughters helped to draw me to the topic.
Your previous book is about divorce, and you're a director of a scholarly organization called the National Marriage Project at Rutgers. How did your interest in family issues develop?
It really began with my interest in the social history of women and children back in my graduate school days. I realized back then that socially and culturally things were changing pretty fast in American family life. Gradually, as part of my work, I got interested in divorce and marriage and the whole question of how people choose their mates. The book looks at the contemporary mating system and why some of the most accomplished women of our day are finding it a struggle to find the right man at the right time in their lives.
Is it your sense that society as a whole suffers in some way if highly educated professional women must struggle to find mates—and that society should therefore (for its own good) take it upon itself to change the situation? Or is the problem more one of personal angst for the individual women directly affected?
The book isn't about a social problem. It's about an important set of social changes. The impact of divorce on children, which I wrote about in my previous book, is a social problem. But the reason I write about the romantic plight of the new single woman isn't because society is going to be damaged if she doesn't find the right man on the right time on the right terms. It's because college-educated women have been the authors of social change. For example, college-educated Baby Boom women were the focus of huge social interest and concern in the past—particularly with respect to their progress in the work place. This was not because society was going to collapse if Baby Boom women didn't get good careers but because they were creating social and cultural change. That's what this book is about—it's a look at a recent and important set of social changes and the women who are part of it.
What audience is the book intended for?
It's written for three audiences. One obviously is the people I'm writing about: college-educated single women in their twenties and thirties who are experiencing some of the circumstances I'm describing. A second audience is the parents of the young women who are in this life stage. A third might be those with some scholarly interest in the changing patterns of dating, mating, and union formation.
You write that the dating and mating behavior of contemporary single women has been neglected by the scholarly world so far. What fields do you think could shed useful light on the subject?
I think a broad range of the human and social sciences—from anthropology to religion to economics to literature—could shed some light on today's dating and mating practices.
You write that the new "chick lit&" genre of fiction about smart, well-educated women having trouble finding good men is analogous to genres that appeared in earlier eras when the courtship system was also in upheaval. You explain that in Medieval France the great chivalric poem the Roman de la Rose, for example, offered instructions for jobless young men on how to win a lady. Does the "chick lit" genre offer that same kind of instructive element? Or is it more just an expression of frustration with things as they are?
"Chick lit" in my definition—though maybe not in the orthodox definition—would include dating advice books. But chick lit fiction is really a cultural indicator of the absence of a common set of rules and rituals to guide women and men in their contemporary courtship practices. It is evidence of a watershed moment when we have mating systems in transition: an old one is receding and a new one has not yet fully formed.
How did you find the women you interviewed for the book?
I recruited them through ads in alumni magazines and public radio magazines. Some of the women who were referred to me took a little recruitment ad that I wrote and put it out on their e-mail networks. I just asked to interview women who fit a particular demographic profile.
The interviews themselves were all the same. They weren't really about "guy talk" or "girl talk"—they were simply an effort to collect biographical, educational, and dating histories of the women who agreed to participate.
Did you also consider interviewing married women of the same age and educational background to compare how their views on courtship and women's life patterns might be different?
Well, that would have been the best way to do a comparative scholarly investigation. But as I say in the introduction, this is just a journalistic first sketch of the subject. Given the limitations of resources and time, I focused exclusively on women who weren't married. It would be very worthwhile to look at a similar sample of women who were married, because I do expect that there would be interesting differences.
You mention a 1999 book about women and career achievement called See Jane Win, which you describe as "a study of the girlhood paths followed by older successful women." Have any analogous books or studies been published in which insight is gleaned from the paths taken by various older women in their family and romantic lives?
One book that looks at dating and mating practices in an earlier era is by Beth Bailey. It's called From Front Porch to Back Seat. Her analysis covers the period from the 1920s to the 1960s. It's in the spirit of what I'm trying to do, which is to look at the broad and deep changes in the social rules and practices of dating.
You talk about how in recent decades girls have been raised to be more competitive, strong, and assertive than they were in the past. Did the women you talked to feel that those qualities were somehow a detriment to them when it came to romance?
Not particularly. Several women mentioned that at times in their life they felt that their intelligence or intellectual achievement seemed to work against them in their romantic relationships with men, but most women felt that there were some men "out there" who would be attracted to smart women. The problem was finding them.
You talk about how success has been redefined for women—that it's shifted from being more about marriage and children to individual accomplishment. But have you found that on a deep-seated level, many of the people you interviewed still consider marriage and children to be ultimately what makes a woman successful?
That's an interesting question. I think the women I talked to want to have both. Their ultimate sense of what they want in life includes family and children, but they aren't willing to contemplate the fact that they therefore will probably have to give up some of their own individual pursuits and career goals. I think the definition of success includes both love and work, and that the challenge is how to sequence that. There is always a certain amount of choice and compromise involved.
You mention that studies have shown that it's the women who are better educated and wait longer to think about getting married who tend to have more stable, long-lasting marriages than women in other demographic groups. But that seems sort of counterintuitive; you'd think the fact that they're spending their early adulthoods learning to become independent might make it more difficult for them to later subsume themselves into family life where the collective welfare of the family takes precedence over individual pursuits.
I think that people who are a little older and more mature and who have had a chance to do at least some of the things that people today feel they need to do in order to make a wise judgment about a partner are more likely to eventually end up in a stable kind of marriage. It's also true, of course, that they're likely to marry someone who is similar to them in education and earning power, which means that those marriages are likely to have more money in them. But there is also some contradictory evidence which suggests that if you have two people who are hyper-careerist and well set in their ways there can be conflict.
A recurring theme in your description of the cohort of women whose plight you're addressing is their having been raised to win prizes, achieve, and generally go after the best of everything. Are these women to some extent seeking impressive husbands as trophies? Are there nice men who express romantic interest in them, but whom these women won't have anything to do with because they're not high enough up the ladder of achievement, or because it's too early yet to tell how far they'll go?
What the women I spoke with said was that they want a husband who is independent and dedicated to his career, but that he doesn't have to make a lot of money. The emphasis was always on finding a best friend—a soul mate—someone you could tell all your troubles to and who would be supportive. So it doesn't seem to be the case that these women were looking for super high-achieving men.
You talk about how there really isn't a courtship crisis for high-achieving young men. But I would have thought they would experience some of the same difficulties as high-achieving women with respect to figuring out where and how to meet suitable mates. After all, they tend to be on the same track as high-achieving women in terms of waiting until they're far beyond their college years to get married.
It's true that you do hear some talk about these problems from men as well, but one reason it doesn't come up as much as a cultural theme is that the male biological clock ticks more slowly and men have more years to devote to their search. They're also able to choose among younger women. Of course, that pattern seems to be changing slightly—there's now more navigation up and down the age scale as opposed to the past when men married women who were about two years younger. However, I think that for men, as well as for women, the standard for someone who you'd want to spend your life with hinges much more today on emotional intimacy. It takes some trial and error and a pretty prolonged and dedicated search to identify the kind of person who is emotionally in sync with you and who is able to communicate and listen to trouble talk.
At the National Marriage Project, we've been interviewing men for the past three years, so I have some sense of the men's side of this, though it's not central to the book.
And these men you talked to didn't express the feeling that they were sometimes being spurned because they weren't impressive enough?
Well some men did, yes, but they tended not to be four-year college graduates. They were guys who were not quite so well-educated and felt that many women looked down on them.
You argue that a new courtship system reflecting contemporary realities needs to be developed so that high-achieving women will have some societal assistance when it comes to finding mates. You point to the emergence of online dating and the proliferation of commercial introduction services as an auspicious beginning. How optimistic are you about the prospects for a mating system that will one day make finding a desirable partner straightforward and relatively easy for the new single woman?
Well, it's never been easy, but it can be a lot easier than it is now. I do think it is likely that a common set of practices, rules, and rituals will evolve to make finding a mate less of a do-it-yourself project than it is today. As for the Internet, it obviously won't provide the whole answer, but I think it will play an important role. In the past, technological innovations have had a huge impact on dating and mating. No one would dismiss the influence on dating of the automobile or the birth-control pill. What's more, the Internet is a technology that helps us to save time and manage information, and both of these things are important to the way the new single woman conducts her mating search.
Is this something you plan to continue to study for a while?
Yes, I do think I'll continue to keep tabs on what's going on in the dating world. The topic offers lots of possibilities and is continuing to evolve … Although I suppose it's a rather strange occupation for someone who's pushing sixty!
ELLE MAGAZINE – December 2002
MY PRINCE WILL COME
Are all the good men taken? A scary new book warns that delaying marriage may mean missing out on it. Rachel Combe explains why you shouldn’t worry
Before I say anything else about the Barbara Dafoe Whitehead’s new book, Why There Are No Good Men Left: The Romantic Plight of the New Single Woman, let me say this to every "new single woman" which by Whitehead’s definition, is an unmarried, well-educated, successful woman in her twenties or thirties): They're just trying to scare you. Don’t you dare panic, and don’t your dare buy this book, because that would be falling right into their evil trap.
The truth is, if Vegas were to make odds on whether or not any given new single woman (let’s just call them NSWs) will marry, they would be ludicrously favorable. One Princeton University projection based on studies of never-married, white, college-educated women (the group Whitehead studied is mostly white) is that as many as 97 percent of NSWs will marry. An analysis of census data by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington found that, once married, 78 percent are likely to have kids (the same as working married women of lower income and education levels). Yes, the marriage rate has declined in America, but not as precipitously among college-educated whites. And this group may simply be delaying the age of first marriage—which actually has a positive effect on the chance of divorce, since slightly older newlyweds are less likely to split. NSWs should be embarrassed by their good fortune rather than fearful about their "plight": There is no group of Americans, male or female, with better odds of getting married and staying married. NSWs are the matrimonial grand-prize winners.
If you defy me and read No Good Men, you’ll find that Whitehead does not dispute these numbers: I actually got one of the rosiest from her book. But Whitehead doesn’t worry too much about the data once she gets going. Instead, she draws what she calls a "preliminary sketch" of the current dating situation based on her own impressions, opinions, and conjectures. Her concern is that NSWs who wait too long to marry may miss their chance altogether. She thinks a woman with a high-flying career is often too busy to fall in love. And when she does finally decide to look for a life partner, she’ll find herself competing not only with other accomplished women, but also younger, more promiscuous, and/or less educated and ambitious women, any of whom the men she’s after might find more attractive.
Whitehead calls this a "crisis in dating and mating," which has led to "widespread anxiety and confusion." And the increasing amount of time women spend unmarried, cycling in and out of relationships, is leaving "a residue of mistrust and hurt . . . like plaque on teeth." Women have become "flat and passionless" when they discuss dating. According to Whitehead, we no longer even talk about falling in love: "A classical language of romance, rooted in poetry, literature, and art, has been supplanted by a scientized ‘relationships talk.’" (This last assertion is inexplicable, given that one page earlier Whitehead cites a Gallup poll in which Gen-Xers said they want to marry a "soul mate.")
Making matters even worse, Whitehead believes that many men are not interested in marriage anymore. They can get sex and companionship without a ring, she says, both from women willing to co-habit with them and women who, as Whitehead puts it, "behave like sexual dairy queens"—as in, they give the milk away for free, so why would the guy buy the cow? Get it? You’re the cow. (I don’t know on whose behalf I am more offended—men’s or women’s.)
In creating a terrifying bogeyman out of so-what-else-is-new sexist scare tactics, No Good Men follows the lead of 2002’s other little book of horrors, Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s much-hyped and now widely discredited tome, Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children. Hewlett misleadingly warned women that their fertility "drops off a cliff" at age thirty-five and that they were in for a lifetime of childless misery if they didn’t hop onto the mommy track posthaste.
Excuse me—Barbara, Sylvia? As a thirty-year-old "new single woman," I think I speak for us all when I say, Could you please back the hell off? I mean, do they really think they have to goad women into fretting about their love lives and biological clocks? Besides, intelligent, successful women don’t get married because pundits tell them it’s time. We’re smart and experienced enough to know that spending your life with someone you merely tolerate rather than someone you’re crazy about is more depressing than ending up alone. Hate to contradict you, Barbara—but we want to fall in love. And love is, thank God, one thing we can’t control.
So why are these women coming after us with their fake crises? Is this the first wave of a new feminist backlash? The protofeminists tackle the postfeminists? Are these older baby-boomer women annoyed that their daughters won’t just get married already and pop out some grandkids? Are they afraid we’re going to steal their husbands? What gives?
Sylvia Ann Hewlett, for her part, seems to have
been dismissed—after the initial rush of breathless publicity—as a baby-obsessed
ideologue. Perhaps when she wrote her hateful book she was suffering fallout
from the years of fertility treatments she endured so she could have her fourth
child at age fifty-one (Hewlett is, of course, the exception to all her own
rules). In any event, hardly anybody bought the book. And while some of my
girlfriends remain uneasy about their fertility—no matter how many studies show
them that Hewlett’s exaggerated to the point of lying (click
here to see some of our coverage)—none
of them have ditched their careers to marry the next available stud.
As for Whitehead, her politics don’t appear to be extreme; she’s not, for example, a member of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum. She is very pro-marriage—but, you know, marriage does have a lot to recommend it. And she clearly has a lot of admiration for the cohort about which she’s written (in an interview, she told me she was inspired by her two single, thirtysomething daughters).
Her book is written rather cagily: It’s not so much what she writes, but the way she writes it—little she says can be proved or disproved. In the chapter "Should We Live Together?" Whitehead never actually comes out and says: No! You shouldn’t! (Although she’s clearly dying to.) Why not? Maybe because her own stats don’t support that point of view: More than half of all co-habitations end in marriage, and half of single women will live with someone (in many cases, their future husband) before they marry. But her choice of anecdotes makes up in innuendo for what she cannot state in fact: She tells the tales of Emily, who lived with her boyfriend, and Blair, who did not. Guess who ends up dumped, mistreated, and alone at thirty-five, and who ends up getting engaged before thirty? (Hint: Emily’s section is entitled "A Cautionary Tale.")
In another chapter, she presents all the encouraging marriage data mentioned earlier and debunks that old Newsweek article that famously (and incorrectly, even at the time) said a single forty-year-old woman had a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than marrying. But then she sums up the happy news with this oddly downbeat construction: "Today, even if women aren’t married by twenty-five, or thirty-five, they may still [my itals] get married." It would be far more accurate to say they will almost definitely get married.
Whitehead bases her picture of contemporary dating on focus groups, popular fiction, and interviews with women—whom she found by having people ask around for accomplished singles who’d like to talk to her about their love lives. Thus, her interviewees were self-selected and, I would think, much more likely than average to be complainers looking for a sympathetic ear. A choice quote from one interviewee: "Society sucks all the hope out of us." Someone get that girl an SSRI!
Whitehead’s ideas about men’s disdain for marriage came largely from focus groups she did with sixty twenty-five-to thirty-three-year-old men from urban areas. But focus groups are notoriously unreliable. And what do you expect from a group of guys swapping stories with strangers? Unlike Whitehead, I’d imagine, I happen to know scores of young single men intimately—these are my friends and boyfriends and exes. And, yes, they often say asinine things, hurtful things, and have doubts about commitment, getting married, having children. But that could easily be said of my girlfriends, as well.
To Whitehead’s credit, she doesn’t call for women to return to youthful marriage and shelved career ambitions. But perhaps more chillingly, she advises the new single woman to bring the efficiency and discipline she uses at work to her manhunt. "She must make good use of every month and every year. It’s important to avoid drift and delay,"
Whitehead writes. She’s a fan of the play-hard-to-get dating guide The Rules (because she says it helps women save time by sorting out men who aren’t really interested in marriage), Internet dating, and the new fad "speed dating," in which a group of single men and women is put through multiple under-ten-minute "dates" in one evening.
She quotes Lois Smith Brady, the New York Times "Vows" wedding columnist: "Whenever anyone asks me about love . . . I always say wait for that feeling, wait, wait, wait. Wait with the patience of a Buddhist fly-fisherman." Which seems to me like a lovely, wise piece of advice. But Whitehead begs to differ: "‘Vows’ is admirably faithful to a romantic conception of the mating search . . . but much of its portrait of the search runs contrary to evidence and experience. Searching for a mate doesn’t get easier as women get older. It gets harder. . . . For another, the notion that love will find you is not reliable. It can happen, of course. But a marriage-minded woman . . . wouldn’t be wise to count on it."
If she means love won’t find you sitting alone on your couch watching Trading Spaces, okay, I’ll buy that (who wouldn’t?). But if she means love won’t find you unless you get hysterical and start spending a lot of money and time on dating services, I think she underestimates the inevitability of love.
Back in the ’70s, when the women’s movement was first picking up speed, naysayers predicted the end of sex: There was no feminist way to get it on, they said, since the classic sexual trope is about male dominance and female submission. But somehow nature overcame theory, and we kept right on making love—what a surprise! Why would it go any differently for marriage? Yes, marriage is a social construct, but it is built on biological imperatives: love, sex, procreation, family. These are inexorable forces—behaviors and desires bred into us over eons of evolution.
It’s just another case of someone creating a problem so they can sell the solution. In my lurid imagination, the pitch meeting at Broadway Books went something like this: We’ve hit a period of worldwide economic and political uncertainty. People are thinking more about what really matters—about family, about marriage. We heard there’s a book about infertility coming out that’s going to get tons of press. Women, our best customers, will already be nervous—let’s kick it up a notch and cash in big-time!
And, in fact, when I asked Whitehead why she titled her book Why There Are No Good Men Left when it’s so inflammatory—and not exactly true—she explained that she was just trying to be provocative: She hopes young women will see the title, find it "arresting," buy the book, and then ultimately be comforted by her proactive guidance. But what if women just find it depressing and run away, à la Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s disappointing sales, I ask her. "Well," Whitehead replied, "then I guess I’m in big trouble." I think—I hope—she’s in big trouble.