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
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?

Presented by

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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