Interviews December 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
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Why There Are No Good Men Left

Why There Are No Good Men Left: The Romantic Plight of the New Single Woman
by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead
Broadway Books
320 pages, $23.95

Odds are that the pulled-together young woman you encounter 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. But for women, the delay makes the search more difficult, fraught with anxiety, and shadowed by the possibility of ultimate failure. It is this pervasive anxiety 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 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 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 close circle of friends. Her odds of encountering her future spouse in these limited spheres are 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 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 more 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 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.

—Sage Stossel


Barbara Dafoe Whitehead
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead

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!

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Sage Stossel is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and draws the cartoon feature "Sage, Ink." She is author/illustrator of the graphic novel Starling, and of the children's books  On the Loose in Boston and On the Loose in Washington, DC. More

On Election Day in 1996, TheAtlantic.com launched a weekly editorial cartoon feature drawn by Sage Stossel and named (aptly enough) "Sage, Ink." Since then, Stossel's whimsical work has been featured by the New York Times Week in Review, CNN Headline News, Cartoon Arts International/The New York Times Syndicate, The Boston Globe, Nieman Reports, Editorial Humor, The Provincetown Banner (for which she received a 2009 New England Press Association Award), and elsewhere. Her work has also been included in Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, (2005, 2006, 2009, and 2010 editions) and Attack of the Political Cartoonists. Her children's book, On the Loose in Boston, was published in June 2009.

Sage Stossel grew up in a suburb of Boston and attended Harvard University, where she majored in English and American Literature and Languages and did a weekly cartoon strip about college life, called "Jody," for the Harvard Crimson. From 2004 to 2007, she served as Books Editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly

After college she took what was intended to be a temporary summer position securing electronic rights to articles from The Atlantic's archive for use online. Intrigued by The Atlantic's rich history and the creative possibilities in helping to launch a digital edition of the magazine on the Web, she soon joined The Atlantic full time. As the site's former executive editor, she was involved in everything from contributing reviews, author interviews, and illustrations, to hosting message boards and producing a digital edition of The Atlantic for the Web.

Stossel lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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