John Tierney’s latest column about women, men, higher education, and marriage (sadly, a prisoner of Times Select) is raising some hackles. Echidne of the Snakes, the feminist blogger who just the other day made mincemeat of a much-trumpeted new study of gender differences in Internet usage, accuses Tierney of nothing less than misogyny — though she says this harsh judgment is also based on some earlier columns of his. She even urges readers to stop subscribing to the Times in protest against the “woman-bashing” dished out by Tierney and David Brooks, who the other day rhapsodized about the power and fulfillment enjoyed by stay-at-home moms.
At Salon.com’s Broadsheet blog, Lori Leibovich is equally unimpressed.
So, what is this horrible thing John Tierney said?
Here are some excerpts from his column, titled “Male Pride and Female Prejudice”:
When there are three women for every two men graduating from college, whom will the third woman marry?
This is not an academic question. Women, who were a minority on campuses a quarter-century ago, today make up 57 percent of undergraduates, and the gender gap is projected to reach a 60-40 ratio within a few years. So more women, especially black and Hispanic women, will be in a position to get better-paying, more prestigious jobs than their husbands…
Tierney notes that while some men are reluctant to marry a higher-earning woman out of masculine pride, such attitudes seem to be dwindling:
In 1996, for the first time, college men rated a potential mate’s financial prospects as more important than her skills as a cook or a housekeeper.
In the National Survey of Families and Households conducted during the early 1990’s, the average single man under 35 said he was quite willing to marry someone earning much more than he did. He wasn’t as interested in marrying someone making much less than he did, and he was especially reluctant to marry a woman who was unlikely to hold a steady job.
Those findings jibe with what I’ve seen. I can’t think of any friend who refused to date a woman because she made more money than he did. When friends have married women with bigger paychecks, the only financial complaints I’ve heard from them have come when a wife later decided to pursue a more meaningful – i.e., less lucrative – career.
Nor can I recall hearing guys insult a man, to his face or behind his back, for making less than his wife. The only snide comments I’ve heard have come from women talking about their friends’ husbands. I’ve heard just a couple of hardened Manhattanites do that, but I wouldn’t dismiss them as isolated reactionaries because you can see this prejudice in that national survey of singles under 35.
The women surveyed were less willing to marry down – marry someone with much lower earnings or less education – than the men were to marry up. …
You may think that women’s attitudes are changing as they get more college degrees and financial independence. A woman who’s an executive can afford to marry a struggling musician. But that doesn’t necessarily mean she wants to. Studies by David Buss of the University of Texas and others have shown that women with higher incomes, far from relaxing their standards, put more emphasis on a mate’s financial resources.
“Of course, some women marry for love and find a man’s resources irrelevant,” Buss says. “It’s just that the men women tend to fall in love with, on average, happen to have more resources.”
Which means that, on average, college-educated women and high-school-educated men will have a harder time finding partners as long as educators keep ignoring the gender gap that starts long before college. Advocates for women have been so effective politically that high schools and colleges are still focusing on supposed discrimination against women: the shortage of women in science classes and on sports teams rather than the shortage of men, period. You could think of this as a victory for women’s rights, but many of the victors will end up celebrating alone.
Tierney’s conclusion is a bit snide and smacks of the “uppity women will end up as old maids” cliché. But is he really, as Echidne claims, warning of “the dangers that women face if they veer away from the path traditionalists hold as the ideal one for women”? Nowhere in his column is there a suggestion that men are likely to shun successful, ambitious, high-earning women — quite the opposite! Nor is he saying that it would be a good idea for women to avoid a higher education because it might harm their marriage prospects. Rather, the main point of his column is that in celebrating female achievement, we should not disregard male underachievement. Echidne claims that Tierney is calling for “affirmative action for men in college admissions,” but he’s not. He specifically says that educators must tackle the male/female gap in academic proficiency long before college. (His column is a response to the recent Weekly Standard article by Melana Zyla Vickers, “Where the Boys Aren’t: The gender gap on college campuses.”)
What’s so outrageous here? The problem of the partner shortage faced by college-educated black women due to the huge gender gap in college attendance among African-Americans (among black college graduates in recent years, women outnumber men two to one) has been a subject of a great deal of discussion, certainly not just among conservatives.
Echidne seems particularly put off by the suggestion that women marry for money. In a separate post, she writes:
One quote in Tierney’s column struck me with unusual vividity. It is by an evolutionary psychologist David Buss:
“Of course, some women marry for love and find a man’s resources irrelevant,” Buss says.
Color me naive but I assumed that most people in the western world who marry do so at least believing that it is for love. Am I totally mistaken in this? Is it true that only “some women” marry for love and that the others, presumably, marry for money? I don’t know a single case of anybody, man or woman, marrying for money amongst my acquaintances but perhaps my acquaintances are atypical?
Leibovcih, quoting Echidne, repeats the same point. But they are both quoting a truncated version of the Buss quote. The second half is:
“It’s just that the men women tend to fall in love with, on average, happen to have more resources.”
Or, to quote the old saw: “It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man.”
Now, I’m not David Buss’s biggest fan. I read a lot of his articles while researching my book, Ceasefire (which has a chapter on sex differences), and I think he often tends to “spin” his findings in a way that magnifies male-female differences. But come on, folks. Is anyone going to seriously argue that a man’s resources — income, power, status — are generally irrelevant to women’s preferences in the mating game in modern-day American culture? That doesn’t mean most women are calculating golddigers (as some men’s rights folks like to depict them), but yes, women generally prefer not to “marry down,” and not just in terms of money but also in terms of prestige, education and intelligence, for which a college degree is considered a marker. To deny this fact is, shall we say, not very reality-based. Unlike many conservatives, I’m not saying that this is the way it should be or the way it always will be. But for now, such a trend is definitely there.
Leibovich’s reaction is especially puzzling because her magazine, Salon.com, has published several interesting articles by Ann Marlowe dealing with this very problem. In a passage particularly relevant to this discussion, Marlowe writes:
Yes, there are plenty of young women who decry marrying for money, but how many of them would marry a man they knew would never make as much money as they do? Money is too tied to power, and hence to our perceptions of sexiness, to be removed from the marital equation.
In another article, Marlowe notes:
We rarely examine the values implied by the kinds of remarks we let slip constantly — “She married badly,” “He’s a meal ticket,” “She’s too high-maintenance.” Very few women would react well if a man asked their price, but many will casually boast of their boyfriend’s expensive presents or recent promotion, or imply that a lover’s income offsets other less stellar qualities.
Marlowe, it should be noted, is a feminist who strongly believes that women can break these patterns. I personally think that she overstates her case somewhat and draws too stark a picture, and tends, not unlike the conservatives, to overgeneralize about women and men. But, in broad terms, she is certainly on to something. Another feminist who has addressed this is writer Peggy Orenstein, whose 2000 book, Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids and Life in a Half-Changed World, based on interviews with about 200 women in their twenties and thirties, makes it clear that most young women — including ones with professed feminist values and aspirations — place a very conscious value on a prospective husband’s earning potential and ambition.
However, once again, it’s not just about money. It’s about status, intelligence, personal growth, if you will. A friend who teaches at a state university told me that she has noticed a pattern among female students from a working-class background: having gotten a college degree, or even some college education, they dump their boyfriends or husbands who have not continued their eudcation beyond high school, mainly because they feel that they have “outgrown” these men. I would add that, today, most college-educated men would probably not see a woman without a college degree as a suitable marriage partner — whether or not her degree enhances her earnings.
So yes, the gender gap in college attendance is very likely to create a skewed marriage market (pardon the utilitarian terminology) in which educated, career-oriented women will face a shortage of marriageable men. It’s hardly anti-feminist to acknowledge this fact.
By the way, Leibovich’s post is followed by some very interesting reader comments discussing these issues.