Monday, May 29, 2006

The Harvard-Yale Study at 20: Still Missing the Point

Twenty years ago this week Newsweek's cover story, "The Marriage Crunch," reported the dire prospects for educated women who had not married by their mid-thirties. The most notorious line in the article – which did not come from the original report – was that a 40-year-old unmarried woman with a B.A. was "more likely to be killed by a terrorist" than ever to marry. This report was unlikely at the time, but the "Harvard-Yale Study" became notorious, attacked by marriage-ambivalent feminists and striking fear into the hearts of unmarried educated women everywhere. This story was particularly important to the Gruntleds because we were graduate students at Yale when that report was written, and one of the co-authors, Trisha Craig, was a college as well as a graduate school classmate of ours.

This week the magazine is running a follow-up story to show how silly the fears they fomented before were. Most of the single and worried women they interviewed in the story subsequently got married and stayed that way. The old rules, Newsweek intones, don't apply any more. Educated men want to marry educated women, and artificial reproductive technology means that women can have babies indefinitely.

The new story is a silly as the old one was. Yes, educated women are marrying later, and their marriages are more likely to last than those of less educated women. Yes, there are all kinds of expensive miracle treatments that extend fertility for a few years for some women. But biology has not been repealed, nor sociobiology. And Newsweek did not report that, ironically, Craig herself is unmarried (though she does not report that as a tragedy).

The main point, though, is that the "Harvard-Yale" demographers did not set out to study the marital chances of educated women, but of uneducated welfare mothers. Those were, and still are, slim. For comparison, they included numbers on the marital chances of educated women of different ages. But Newsweek isn't aimed at welfare mothers, and neither are the thousand and one women's magazines that picked up the story. For their readers, the footnote was the story. And Newsweek, like most news organizations, usually finds a way to turn every story into something readers can fear.

The good news is that educated women do have a good chance of marrying.
The bad news is that uneducated welfare mothers don't. And that is something that we as a society should be concerned about.


KLG said...

I guess I'll have to go back and read that study, because apparently I live in a part of the country that is an outlier or is very different from the study sample. (I'm in Central Texas) I and many of my female friends are highly educated with advanced degrees. All of us married soon after completing our undergraduate degrees, to similarly well educated men. I am the only one still married after 19 years, and some of them are already on their second divorce. I am also the only one with children. Any connection? Others of my female friends with long-lasting happy marriages are less well educated - they either have no degree or stopped after their undergrad or associates degree. I wonder if the women who continued on beyond that point have less realsitic expectations of their mate, or put more emphasis on their careers than on their marriage because of the same ambition that drove them to complete advanced degrees?

Gruntled said...

It is hard to say without knowing much more about the cases, but on these facts I would say that to ambitious career workers with no kids to hold them together would find ample temptations to divorce over the years.