When Newsweek ‘Struck Terror in the Hearts of Single Women’

Thirty years ago, the magazine declared that single women over 40 are more likely to be killed by terrorism than to get married—prompting a nationwide crisis whose anxiety still lingers.

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It’s easier to be killed by a terrorist than it is to find a husband over the age of 40,” a co-worker informs Annie (Meg Ryan) in Sleepless in Seattle.

“That statistic is not true!” Annie protests.

Becky (Rosie O’Donnell) settles the debate. “That’s right—it’s not true,” she says. “But it feels true.”

It feels true is, in retrospect, a perfect way to sum up the thing that gave the grim statistic its staying power, both in the canonical ’90s rom-com and in the culture at large: an article that graced the cover of Newsweek in early June of 1986. The piece, inside the magazine, carried the headline “Too Late for Prince Charming?” But it was presented to the public, via Newsweek’s cover, in more alarmist tones. It looked like this:

Thirty years later—the publication date of the article was June 2—it’s easy to forget that the so-pervasive-as-to-be-Ephroned marriage-and-terrorism stat was plucked from a single piece of journalism that was in turn based on a study that was, at the time of the story’s publication, unpublished. It’s also easy to forget, given its resonance, that the stat comes from an article that has since been so thoroughly debunked, by demographers and sociologists and media outlets alike, that Newsweek, 20 years after the fact, retracted it.

And yet: It felt true. The empirical reality, as so often happens, became unmoored from the hazier human one. “For a lot of women,” The New York Times put it, wearily, in 2006, “the retraction doesn’t matter. The article seems to have lodged itself permanently in the national psyche.”

The original version of “Too Late for Prince Charming?”—which was more than 3,000 words long, and named six different reporters in its byline—is available today, best I can tell, only in spectral form: You can find it online not through Newsweek’s site, but through a Lexis-Nexis search (and the hackily copy-pasted results thereof). That makes some sense. On one level, the piece is very much a product, and a reflection, of its time—a time when Americans were navigating the consequences of the baby boom and the women’s liberation movement and the sexual revolution and the advent of the birth-control pill and economic recession and economic prosperity and the many, many other events that made the ’70s and ’80s times of simmering cultural anxieties.

But what’s perhaps most striking about the story, 30 years later, is how oddly fresh it still feels, how urgent its anxieties still seem. The piece’s core message—panic, ladies, because your professional goals will undermine your personal ones—lives on, in its way, in every current news story about the difficulty educated women face in the “marriage market,” in every blithe reference to the “biological clock,” and indeed in every piece of media that gazes upon women’s bodies and sees, in their fleshy fallibility, some form of social determinism.

* * *

The Newsweek story, to be sure, was framed as an attempt to quell—or at least to put anecdotes and data behind—anxieties about marriage and biological-clock-ism that had long run rampant in the culture. “Her sister had heard about it from a friend who had heard about it on Phil Donahue that morning,” the piece begins, leaving both the “her” and the “it” in question initially mysterious. It continues:

Her mother got the bad news via a radio talk show later that afternoon. So by the time Harvard graduate Carol Owens, 23, sat down to a family dinner in Boston, the discussion of the man shortage had reached a feverish pitch. With six unmarried daughters, Carol's said her mother was sounding an alarm. “You’ve got to get out of the house and meet someone,” she insisted. “Now.”

It goes on in that way—pitch and panic and many faceless shes—for several paragraphs:

The traumatic news came buried in an arid demographic study titled, innocently enough, “Marriage Patterns in the United States.” But the dire statistics confirmed what everybody suspected all along: that many women who seem to have it all—good looks and good jobs, advanced degrees and high salaries—will never have mates. According to the report, white, college-educated women born in the mid-’50s who are still single at 30 have only a 20 percent chance of marrying. By the age of 35 the odds drop to 5 percent. Forty-year-olds are more likely to be killed by a terrorist: They have a minuscule 2.6 percent probability of tying the knot.

Within days, that study, as it came to be known, set off a profound crisis of confidence among America’s growing ranks of single women. For years bright young women single-mindedly pursued their careers, assuming that when it was time for a husband they could pencil one in. They were wrong. “Everybody was talking about it and everybody was hysterical,” says Bonnie Maslin, a New York therapist. “One patient told me, ‘I feel like my mother’s finger is wagging at me, telling me I shouldn’t have waited”

What the piece neglects to say, until several more paragraphs of “traumatic news” and “wrong women,” was that the study it was addressing was “still unpublished” at the time of the story’s own publication. (That study, conducted by a trio of academics at Yale and Harvard, made news in the first place, Newsweek noted, via “an interview with a small Connecticut paper.”) But the cover art the magazine chose for its story—not to mention the piece’s quotes and anecdotes and “data,” all of them peppered with references to “her diminishing chances” and “the anguish of being single”—elided that significant caveat.

So did the story itself, as it delved into the details that formed the meat of the article: considerations of the consequences of women putting careers before family, insinuations of women waiting too long for their Misters Right, blunt declarations that “super-achieving women set impossibly high standards.” It framed “white, college-educated women born in the mid-’50s” as Single Women, a nebulous monolith. It came up with the “better chances of getting killed by a terrorist” line, which had not appeared in the original study. “Too Late for Prince Charming?” was ultimately a proof of Betteridge’s law: It presented a single and unpublished statistical analysis under the guise of demographic determinism. Newsweek’s thesis was that women were panicking about some news, and it proved—“proved”—that thesis not by focusing on the news, but by focusing on the panic. And panic, being what it is, has a way of proving itself.

What happened post-publication was a pre-web form of viral spread: The article’s scare-stats were shared and amplified via articles in wire services (UPI dutifully  repeated the story’s “profound crisis of confidence among America’s growing ranks of single women” line) and in other magazines. Its ideas and insinuations made their way to pop culture, whose own products were reckoning with the same phenomena the journalistic media were.

All of which helped that single article to extend far beyond 1986. When Harry Met Sally, in 1989, found Sally—having just broken up with a long-term boyfriend—wailing to Harry that 40 is “just sitting there, like some big dead end!” (She was 32 at the time.) Sleepless in Seattle, in 1993, knew enough to cite Newsweek’s terrorism stat as bogus, but not enough to fully reject its truth. As Candace Bushnell, the author of the New York Observer column that gave rise to Sex and the City, put it in 2006: “That Newsweek cover struck terror in the hearts of single women everywhere.”

Because, gah, it felt true! And what’s most jarring, today—30 years after the article was published, and 10 years after it was officially retracted—is how true it feels, still. Not in terms of the debunked stats themselves, or of the women quoted in the article (many of whom, the Wall Street Journal reported, went on to get married), but rather in the subtler, stickier elements of the article. Its vaguely accusatory tone. Its framing of marriage and career as being fundamentally at odds with each other. Its insinuation that single women have been, essentially, undermining their romantic goals by focusing on their professional ones.

The piece, though it made passing reference to women who choose to remain single, pretty much took it for granted that marriage is not just a social institution or an economic arrangement or the atomic bond at the center of the nuclear family, but something broader and more aspirational: a mark of social success. It assumed a cultural attitude that remains with us, today, in news accounts and the products of pop culture: that to be married is not just to love someone or to have a partner or a companion or a co-parent, but also to have unlocked a level in the great game of life. That to be married is to choose, but also to have been chosen. That matrimony is, on top of everything else, a social status that can be conferred only when another person willingly weaves their life to yours.

Today, certainly, we congratulate ourselves on the progress we’ve made when it comes to marriage and the relative flexibility of our romantic arrangements. Marriage equality is the law of the land. “60 is the new 40.” Books like All the Single Ladies and Spinster, not to mention many of the web articles that have emerged from the first-person industrial complex, feature women who declare themselves happily, liberatedly—and permanently—single. (Sex and the City famously featured an episode in which Carrie, fed up with all the money she had been required to spend on gifts for friends who had gotten engaged and married and pregnant, married herself.)

All of that amounts to a good, and indeed a liberating, development: The culture is increasingly treating marriage, for so long the default social arrangement, as a choice rather than a fact of life.

But: The culture was already doing that in 1986. (“Many women,” the Newsweek piece notes, “have frankly come to terms with staying single—perhaps even preferring it to settling for Mr. Wrong.”) Newsweek’s story resonated the way it did, in some sense—and it still resonates, in its alarmist way—in part because it called the culture’s bluff: It assumed that despite it all, despite feminism and gender parity and everything else, biology would step in both to make women want marriage, and to make marriage less possible for them as they aged. It assumed that Prince Charming was a feature not just of antiquated fairy tales, but of everyday women’s lives.

These are assumptions that remain with us. 2008’s “Marry Him!,” in The Atlantic, exhorted women to “settle for Mr. Good Enough” not (just) because of the social comforts marriage offers—companionship, the easing of economic burdens, perhaps even, in the luckiest of circumstances, love—but also because settlement would help to ensure that women could have the babies they wanted before it was too late. A Guardian article tellingly titled “The Foul Reign of the Biological Clock” went viral just last month. “Too Late for Prince Charming?” may have been debunked; its ideas, though—the too lates, the you wanted too muches—linger.

That helps to explain why later editions of the Sex and the City franchise—the films—found Carrie reversing her declarations of satisfied singledom to marry her boyfriend. And why Bridget Jones’s Diary resonated in large part because of its heroine’s unapologetic desire to marry and thus avoid a “permanent state of spinsterhood.” And why the Bachelor franchise has been going strong for 20 years. And why the marriage plot still underscores so many of 2016’s rom-coms. Marriage, still, despite it all, is the goal—whether it’s declared or implied. All those “I’m single and happy about it” essays talk about empowerment, but their underlying message is decidedly less liberating: Not being married, they suggest, by the time you’re supposed to have been married, requires an explanation.

“Remember when they used to say that single women over the age of 35 were more likely to get killed by a terrorist than to get married?” Amanda says, in the 2006 rom-com The Holiday. “Okay, that was horrible,” she admits, “but now our generation is also not getting married and—bonus!—real terrorists actually became part of our lives. So the stress of it all shows up on our faces, making us look haggard!”

And you know what’s really bad about looking haggard, the movie suggests? It makes things harder for you when you’re looking for a husband.