Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Goin' to the Chapel and We're Gonna Get... Awww.. Screw It!

Well, well. What do you know about that? The braintrusts over at Newsweek have decided to run a twenty-year retrospective on the ruckus-stirring cover piece about women and marriage they called "The Marriage Crunch" in which, using data gleaned from a demographic study called "Marriage Patterns in the United States,"* the news magazine had the incredible bad taste to quip that a woman who hadn't married by the age of 40 was "more likely to be killed by terrorists" than ever utter "I do." Granted, in these post-9/11 days, the writers would certainly have used a different (if equally as demeaning and derogatory) comparison. But I remember thinking at the time whether people who'd lost loved ones to terrorist attacks like pub bombings in London,the Operation Entebbe incident, and the hijacking of the Achille Lauro (which had occurred mere months before the article was written) were as amused as the writers seemed to be by that mean-spirited (not to mention utterly false -- see Susan Faludi and Discover magazine) little taunt. Furthermore, the article went on to contend that women with college degrees and good jobs with good pay were less likely to get married than women who had only completed high school and were working for minimum wage. The message was clear -- do too well, get too smart, be too independent and ambitious, and you can expect a life of lonely solitude and desperation.

Had Newsweek only just met us in 1986? Our mothers were the women who burned their bras, took to the courts to declare our rights to our own wombs, overturned decades of subjugating legislation, made it possible for a married woman to establish her own credit, open her own bank account, and even charge her own husband with spousal rape (laws that had never existed before the late 2oth century, thank you very much). The study on which Newsweek based the article was also reported on the television news and in People magazine with particular relish. People, as I recall, featured a photograph of the gorgeous, single 40-something Donna Mills on its cover as an example of what it called "The New Look of Old Maids" (charming, no?). But People is People, and Newsweek is Newsweek, and when I read something as lowbrow and badly researched and conceived as "The Marriage Crunch" was, I take exception. What really irked me at the time was how Newsweek could so audaciously proclaim to gaze into their statistical crystal ball, and based on numbers gathered from previous generations, blythely assume that women who had not yet married would, in fact, never marry. The plain fact of the matter was that the study was based on economic statistics that were never intended for such use, and that failed to take into account an entirely new generation of women who had been raised to want, need and look for different things in life. Surely, any idiot could see that (well, almost any idiot, apparently).

Thanks to those stalwart, wicked, courageous mothers of ours, by God, marriage, gender roles and family life in America were all undergoing an enormous shift. People were choosing to live together and have children without being married, to be open about their homosexuality**, to marry later, delay motherhood, and have longer, more fulfilling careers outside the home. Oh, well, who cares whether those fat, ugly, over-40-year-old women were nonplussed at Newsweek's presumptuous, poorly conceived, mean-spirited little journalistic mishap? They were probably all just hysterical, sexless, spinster females, gagging for a good, hearty poke anyway, weren't they.

Or, were they?

Newsweek decided that a nifty way to celebrate the twenty-year anniversary was to do a collection of articles addressing the originals issues so hotly contended back in 1986. In "Marriage By Numbers: Rethinking Marriage After 40", they went back and re-interviewed 11 of the 14 women from "The Marriage Crunch" to see where they were today. Know what they discovered? That, miraculously, of the eleven, eight had actually managed to trap a man and get knocked up.*** Three stayed single, they say (but who can really trust those lying spinster hags?) by choice. Know what else they've discovered? Of the eight women who married, none -- not one -- has divorced. Then, the magazine has the nerve to make the following observation: "One striking aspect of this Where Are They Now exercise: none of these women divorced. Perhaps it's no coincidence." Yes, perhaps it's not. Perhaps, just perhaps, mind you, that staving off marriage until you're a whole person with a highly developed sense of self and a separate and well-established identity is conducive to forming a relationship bond that might actually last for at least an hour and twenty minutes after getting back from the honeymoon.

For the record, the Newsweek article was written mostly by women contributors, and the "killed by terrorist" line was initally written as a quippy little joke in an internal memo by one of the writers, and was inserted into the final piece, intended as levity, by one of the female editors. Both have since expressed regret at the furor (and fury) that the line caused, and equally disdain its inclusion in American pop culture to the extent it has been. To Newsweek's credit (yes, I'm actually going to cut them some slack), they have pretty much owned up to the fallacies they heaped on an entire generation of women (as if we didn't have enough of a burden to carry, what with having it all, and being ball-busting feminists, goddamnit!). Every link I've included in this article came directly or indirectly through the Newsweek restrospective on The Marriage Crunch. While the original article was considered a "cautionary tale of delaying matrimony" for American women, the retrospective refers to that article as a cautionary tale of what happens when a statistical study is taken at face value without further investigating the numbers (as was done a month or two later, when some bright genius used U.S. Census numbers and ran a comparison against the original study statistics, proving them lacking).

It's an interesting turn about -- one that Newsweek kind of downplays in all of the articles with a sort of "Aw, shucks, it was all in good fun" demeanor that grates. Maybe it was all in good fun. But the fact is that women in this country over 40 have faced a hard enough time, trying to fight the notion that we're too old to do anybody any good. Such statistical stigmatizing only fuels the sexism and agism that we are already up against. Additionally, the fact that Newsweek failed to seek sources indicating an American man's statistical likelihood of marriage based on his age, salary and job title was a huge journalistic blunder -- one that violates the very premise of objective, balanced reporting (and this was back in '86, before objective, balanced reporting had gone the way of the dodo bird and the sabertoothed tiger).

So, happy 20th annivesary, "Marriage Crunch." May the road rise up to meet you... then smack you upside the head for all the grief you've caused us, lo, these past two decades.


* It should be noted that the original study paper, written by David E. Bloom and Neil G. Bennett, relied on economic data rather than census data for its demographics, as the original intent of the study was to determine the impact that a woman's salary/job status had on the timing of a woman's first marriage. The results were never intended by Bloom and Bennett to state with any reliability a woman's chances of marrying based on her age.
**It's important to remember that there are many lesbians well into middle age today who would gladly be married to the loves of their lives had our petty, small-minded legislatures not prevented them doing so at every possible turn.
*** In a shocking turn of events, none of the women had, at the time of this writing, actually been killed by a terrorist.

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