Having It All

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Reviewed by Stephanie Coontz
Sunday, November 26, 2006

WHY SMART MEN MARRY SMART WOMEN

By Christine B. Whelan

Simon & Schuster. 239 pp. $24

SINGLE BY CHANCE, MOTHERS BY CHOICE

How Women Are Choosing Parenthood Without Marriage and Creating the New American Family By Rosanna Hertz

Oxford Univ. 273 pp. $26

You can't have it all, women have long been told. The price of female achievement, goes the centuries-old conventional wisdom, is loneliness. And modern commentators have taken up the refrain. "The more successful the woman, the less likely it is she will find a husband or bear a child," argued economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett in 2002. Last year, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd claimed that America faces "an epidemic of professional women missing out on husbands and kids" because men remain unwilling to enter equal relationships with educated, high-powered women. And in the first two-thirds of the 20th century, as women gained greater access to higher education and professional work, such was indeed the case. Women who earned bachelor's degrees and PhDs were more likely to miss out on their "MRS" degrees than their less-educated sisters.

But for women born since 1960, there has been a revolutionary reversal of the historic pattern. As late as the 1980s, according to economist Elaina Rose, women with PhDs or the equivalent were less likely to marry than women with a high school degree. But the "marital penalty" for highly educated women has declined steadily since then, and by 2000 it had disappeared. Today, women with a college degree or higher are more likely to marry than women with less education and lower earnings potential.

Highly educated women are also now as likely to have children as their less-educated counterparts -- and much more likely to have children born in wedlock. At the same time, economically successful women are the fastest-growing segment of the minority of women who, if they do not marry, choose to have children anyway. The titles of two new books sum up the opportunities that women now have to mix and match their personal and professional lives: Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women, by Christine B. Whelan, and Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice, by Rosanna Hertz.

Whelan's book is aimed at the demographic group she calls SWANS -- Strong Women Achievers, No Spouse. Whelan commissioned a poll of 1,629 high-achieving men and women ages 25 to 40 and found that almost half the women reported fearing that their success in the world of work was a disadvantage in the world of love. Whelan reassures them that men increasingly do want to marry equals, that most men are not intimidated by educational and career success.

One poll, a series of interviews with a second sample of "high-achievers," and a handful of research studies are a rather flimsy peg on which to hang a book. What could have been a focused, attention-getting article is muddled by considerable padding. Whelan's book does not answer the question posed by her title -- why do smart men now marry smart women? -- nor does she explore the declining marital prospects for poorly educated women and men. Low-income, poorly educated men have the worst prospects of any group in today's marriage market, suggesting that it is a mistake to frame the revolution in marriage as a woman's issue. More men than women describe being married as their ideal state, and men who remain single fare far worse emotionally than do their female counterparts.

Still, this book contributes to the cultural conversation about marriage by countering outdated stereotypes about male-female relations. Whelan's polls confirm what authors Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers showed in more compelling detail in their 2004 book Same Difference-- that in the middle to upper levels of the education and income distribution, men and women are moving closer together, not farther apart, in what they want from relationships.

Whelan offers encouragement to everyone in her demographic. Career women who postpone marriage, she explains, still have a good chance to marry in their 30s or 40s, and she cites a study by three sociologists who find that, unlike in the past, wives' fulltime employment is now associated with a lowered risk of divorce. For women who marry too late to have children, her poll shows that many women believe they can have very satisfying lives anyway. For women who don't marry but want a child, she points out that this is now an option. Half her female respondents said that they'd consider having a child alone if they couldn't find a suitable partner.

Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice deals with women who made that decision. Based on in-depth interviews with 65 middle-class women, Hertz's book traces how women decide first to have children outside marriage and then whether to adopt, choose a known donor or become pregnant through an anonymous sperm donor. She explores how these women answer their children's questions about their biological fathers and how they integrate men into their children's lives.

Most of the heterosexual women Hertz interviews are "reluctant revolutionaries," women who would have preferred a male partner but who reached a point where they were willing to go it alone rather than miss out on motherhood. Her lesbian subjects, by contrast, consciously defied the idea that motherhood depends upon a heterosexual relationship. Neither group made these choices lightly. They enlisted the support of families and friends before embarking on this journey, and they have all had to grapple with their children's desire to picture their father and understand their kin connections. Contrary to some stereotypes, these women try mightily to include men in their children's lives. Hertz describes how they handle these thorny issues and gets the women to speak candidly about their trials, joys and dilemmas.

It's impossible to do justice here to the complexity of the portraits Hertz paints in this well-crafted book, including the different ways that women handle the often unexpected results of their decisions. Indeed, the details and variations in her stories are more compelling than her theoretical overview. Where Whelan fails to ground her data and advice in a coherent analysis, Hertz tries too hard to fit her material into an overarching feminist sociological framework. Concepts such as "compulsory motherhood" fail to capture the complex decision-making process her informants describe. Nor does the term patriarchy seem helpful in describing the messy mix of expanded options and continuing constraints these women confront. Certainly, male privilege still exists, but neither law nor popular opinion still enforces male dominance in most daily interactions. The freedom of single, economically secure women to raise children without the harsh economic penalties and social stigma of the past is a far cry from the patriarchy of yore.

I also question Hertz's claim that the "mother-child dyad" is the revolutionary family form of the future. Interviewed four years later, her subjects almost all reported that the two-person unit had been too intense. Some had added more children; others had added a partner.

Female-centered families are here to stay, and it is important to accept their legitimacy. But the same social changes that give women new options in their personal and professional lives also open new opportunities for paternal involvement in families, on far more egalitarian terms than in the past. That development is just as welcome -- and surely just as revolutionary -- as the new possibilities for lesbians and heterosexual women to rear children successfully without the involvement of fathers.

Stephanie Coontz, the author of "Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage," teaches at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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