Women who fear they'll never find a husband because they're "too smart," "too well educated," "intimidating," or "too successful" should stop being afraid—in fact, we'd argue they shouldn't have been afraid in the first place. Stephanie Coontz, author of A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, writes in the New York Times that the commonly held belief that well-educated women have a harder time with marital prospects -- not only because men might consider such women "too smart," but also because the pool of better-educated men to cull from was so small -- is no longer a valid cultural reality. Coontz writes, "That may have been the case in the past, but no longer. For a woman seeking a satisfying relationship as well as a secure economic future, there has never been a better time to be or become highly educated."
Hooray! But before we rush out to get our long-awaited PhDs, let's explore this further.
Back in the old days, the average man's marriage material was, at least according to the statistics and national surveys, someone who could cook and keep a clean house, and who was "pleasing" in disposition. It took until 1967 for education to crack the top ten characteristics men sought in would-be wives. Vestiges of that era still exist in today's society (see: "How to Date a Wall Street Man") despite education and intelligence rising to the the 4th most important "wife" quality for men by 2008. (Those follow "mutual attraction, dependable character and emotional stability.")
That shift was seen statistically in marriage rates. By 2008, Coontz writes, "the percentage of college-educated white women ages 55 to 59 who had never been married was down to 9 percent, just 3 points higher than their counterparts without college degrees. And among women 35 to 39, there was no longer any difference in the percentage who were married."
Further, educated women have experienced less of the marriage slip that's occurred as overall rates have fallen, and educated women are less likely to divorce, even as they marry later. "As a result, by age 30, and especially at ages 35 and 40, college-educated women are significantly more likely to be married than any other group." The icing on the cake: If they don't marry, they'll still statistically, by and large, live longer and healthier lives than their less-educated sisters.
What does this mean in light of recent articles decrying the prolonged adolescence and lack of commitment of men? Has the reverse of the old stereotype occurred: Are smart women marrying down?
Maybe, according to Coontz. Women may be pairing up with guys with less education than they have, or who make less money. Yet these relationships, which previously might have been considered imbalanced or unusual, have benefits for women, and there's no evidence they're "less satisfying" than the traditional model. Studies have shown that men are more likely to help their well-educated, well-paid counterparts with housework. And " women feel more sexually attracted to partners who pitch in."
Instead of "marrying up" or "marrying down," then -- gross terms, really -- maybe we're simply, suddenly, marrying people who pair well with our individual wants and needs, or who complete an overall marital unit, each bringing something to the table as opposed to simply fulfilling desires for a mate that have been societally prescribed. Which would be progress, certainly.
Smart women have known for a while, of course, that men who are threatened by a woman being successful aren't the types they want in the first place. And smart women are likely to have figured out that the definition of "marriageable" is not about having certain professional or financial boxes checked. (If you're focusing only on those checked boxes, your expectations of marriage are probably setting you up for a rude awakening.)
But maybe this is a natural consequence of a society that's marrying later, thereby losing some of the innocence and unrealistic expectations of, say, the 20-year-old bride or groom -- and gaining the things that come with marrying later, like independence, careers, and fully formed individual selves and opinions. As well as an understanding of who we really want to marry, should we decide to couple at all.
A hint at the way old notions have remained comes at the end of Coontz's piece, as she explains that young women asked by journalist Liza Mundy what they wanted in a mate did express a desire for someone with "more" -- education, experience, etc. -- than they had, themselves. “I want him to respect what I know, but I also want him to know just a little more than me,” said one.
There's nothing wrong with wanting more from a partner -- as long as he or she wants something more from you, as well. We'll know we've gotten there when that's the sentiment coming from both sides of the table.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.