It is reported by Newsweek that if a woman has reached the age of 40 without having married, the probability of her ever doing so is 2.6 percent. You can safely say that the real chances are nil, which is to say that if you are 40, female and single, the only thing likely to change is your age.
Deal. We are playing old maid.
But someone has changed the rules. Instead of the game being one of chance, it is now seen as one of choice. In Newsweek and other places, single women are being told that their plight is of their own making: they wanted to have everything.
In the Newsweek story, some of the women seem to accept the notion that the single bed they now lie in is one they have made. They attribute their unmarried state to the pursuit of a career, passing up men (and marriage proposals) as they toiled late at their desks. Now, too late, they look up from their blotters and realize that time and opportunity have passed them by. They should have compromised.
The magazine article wags a finger at these women, suggesting reproach; suggesting, in fact, that they should have settled. It admonishes them for refusing to accept less, noting that they are members of the Baby Boom generation "arguably the most spoiled." (What? In all of history?) Newsweek then ushers in a pop expert named William Novak, the author of "The Great American Man Shortage." He calls the Baby Boomers' alleged refusal to compromise the "I'm okay, you'd better be perfect syndrome."
But what's a poor girl to do? Can she marry someone who hasn't asked? Should she forget about love and passion and, in the manner of real estate, accept the best bid? Are grandma's words of wisdom true? Can you really learn to love him? Does making a nice living offset a tendency to drool while asleep? Does rejecting this sort of sod house advice make a woman -- arguably, of course -- spoiled? Is she really looking for perfection or just someone who makes the pulse race with the touch? What in God's name are these experts talking about?
They are talking about a kind of sexism. The backdrop for the Newsweek story is the return of 1950-era values: the problem with these women is that they have reached too far, gone beyond the limits imposed by nature itself -- forgotten that they are, after all, merely women.
No such tone is ever used for men. It is perfectly all right for men to want it all -- to want to be husband, father and that most wonderful of all things, an entrepreneur. In fact, the revival of 1950s values says that that is precisely what a man should want to be. Phil Donahue's ratings notwithstanding, the message is clear: no more Mr. Sensitivity. Go for it! Go for it all!
For women, though, "wanting it all" is seen as a character flaw. The punishment, the comeuppance, is spinsterhood -- a lonely old age, no husband, no children and no grandchildren. Such object lessons might rationalize the current yen to return to the Perry Como era, but they do not square with reality. There are, in fact, millions of women who do "have it all" -- marriage, family and career. They do not have it easy. They do have their problems. But they have managed to combine various roles and show, with a little luck and lots of strength, that it can work.
For lots of women, the demographic study upon which the Newsweek story was based was awful news. The 2.6 percent figure says, "Give up all hope." The odds are slim and yet, for sure, they are better than those that entice millions to play lotteries. But the really bad news is in the demographics themselves. When it comes to marriage, an accelerating birthrate will always produce a shortage of males and a surplus of females. Women now around 40 years of age were born when the birthrate was really accelerating. Demographics says that no matter what some of them did -- whether they pursued a husband or a career -- they simply were never going to marry. Their generation had run out of men.
Demographics is destiny. But now destiny is being used to make a political statement -- to chide women for wanting to be more than someone says they should be. They get blamed for their fate, told that because they wanted to have it all, they wound up with less. The truth is otherwise. Some of these women would not have married anyway. Because they wanted to have it all, they at least have something. Their game was never old maid. It's poker, and they're still playing.