The Mrs. Myth
June 2, 1986: A Newsweek cover story, “The Marriage Crunch,” asks: “Is It Too Late for Prince Charming?” Citing a study by three researchers from Yale and Harvard, it drops a bombshell on never-wed, white, college-educated women 40 or older: They are “more likely to be killed by a terrorist” than to find husbands.
This “man shortage,” widely ballyhooed by the media, created a wave of near-hysteria among women of a certain age who had it all--except husbands. At a time when their sisters were marrying at the median age of 24, these baby boomers had just been told that bachelors of suitable age were so scarce that, past 40, they had only a 1.3% chance of snagging one.
The idea that these women were doomed to be members of some “lonely hearts club” did, indeed, alarm many, recalls author Susan Faludi, then in her 20s. But she, for one, was skeptical of the report.
“It started the ball rolling,” Faludi says, on what was to become her seminal 1991 book, “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.” The real issue, to her, was “the way that the study was used to beat women over the head for having pursued education and jobs.”
Los Angeles writer-anthropologist Laurie Levin, then nearing 40 and still single, recalls, “I saw that statistic and I went, ‘Wait a minute! This can’t be right.’ ”
Anxious to refute it, she teamed with L.A. writer-editor Laura Golden Bellotti to write “You Can’t Hurry Love:
An Intimate Look at First Marriages After 40.”
Their 1992 book emphasized: “Women and men who marry for the first time later in life aren’t social misfits or unlovable leftovers, but represent a fast-growing and relatively new marriage phenomenon.”
Says Levin, “I wanted to give women like me a sense that their fate was not sealed.”
The Newsweek report was also refuted by a Census Bureau demographer, who concluded that those over-40 women actually had a 17%-23% chance of making a first marriage. As for the “man shortage,” the reality was--and is--that there are slightly more unmarried men than unmarried women between the ages of 40 and 44. (Census data for 1995 put the ratio at 1.01 to 1.)
Still, the National Center for Health Statistics reports, a woman in her mid-to-late 20s is five times as likely to marry for the first time as a woman 40-44. And, as she ages, her chances lessen.
According to Faludi, “The one place where there really is a man shortage is in the 55-and-up group.”
Today, the median age at first marriage for women is 24.5, for men, 26.9. But those who would spread gloom and doom about older women’s prospects based solely on statistics don’t take into account that many prefer the single life or opt for cohabitation.
Other over-40s with otherwise full lives acknowledge that there’s something missing--and they’re out there looking.
Faludi, who has never married but is in a long-term relationship, observes: “Obviously, there’s still this yearning for some magical solution, or somebody to take care of you, which is not limited to women. It’s just more acceptable for women to express it.”
And, alas, we live in a youth-oriented culture. “Unfortunately, men seem to think that young women are best,” says professional matchmaker Jill Hankoff, founder of the West L.A.-based California Singles social club.
But, she adds, a woman who makes a real effort, and is open to compromise, has “a decent chance. Women of a certain age have to look beyond that prince they were convinced by their mother they were entitled to.”
Westside psychologist Annette Baran, in a 1986 Times story on the frustration felt by older single women in the wake of the “man shortage” alarm, said that psychotherapists were seeing record numbers of “single women who have relationship problems.” She called it “a phenomenon of this era.”
Now, 12 years later, Baran counsels “single women who haven’t figured out that they’re reaching middle age until suddenly they’re very middle-aged"--and marriage-minded.
If told today that they were more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to find a spouse, would they feel panicky, as so many did in 1986? “Maybe even more so,” says Baran. “The desire to lead a conventional, conformist life, even staying home with babies, doesn’t sound so bad anymore. There is much more of the ‘let me register at Bloomingdale’s and everybody buy me my crystal and flatware’ ” mentality.
But Faludi disputes the modern panic factor. “I doubt it,” she says, pointing out that “the more economically independent a woman is, the less likely she is to be anxious to marry.” And, she adds, “Because young women are pursuing higher education in larger numbers than ever, and accumulating greater debt than ever, it might make sense to work for a few years before you become a total housewife.”
Among the unwed over-40s in California Singles are a number of professional women who, Hankoff says, “just got so darned busy and time slipped away.”
Some, requesting anonymity, talked about their thoughts on, and prospects for, marriage.
When “Laura,” then in her early 30s, read the Newsweek story, “It struck terror into my very soul. I thought, ‘Oh, my God!’ Then it was sort of ‘OK, face reality. This is what you have to look forward to.’ ” And then she prayed.
Now 45, an executive assistant and living in the San Fernando Valley, she says that for her, marriage “just didn’t happen.”
Laura has found “the older you get, there are more expectations, more demands, more fears on both sides, but certainly with men. It would be great to meet somebody who’s wealthy and a really good person and is crazy about me and I’m crazy about him, but. . . . “
She adds, “Values are very important to me. I’m not talking about whether a man wears linen or polyester. And I don’t ask what kind of car they have.”
An eldest child and a Roman Catholic, she has felt unspoken pressure to marry and has thought, “Please, God, let me marry somebody before my parents die. . . . I wish I could do that so they would feel normal.”
Laura is attractive, but she has no illusions about being spotted by Mr. Right across a crowded room. “At this age, you just can’t set yourself up like that.” And she’s not taking any more classes to learn “how I should talk to people, do I look OK, am I exercising enough.”
Now, she reasons, “It’s up to God. All I can do is be out there and try.”
“It’s not hard to get married,” says “Carol,” 44, a teacher and writer living in Mar Vista. “Having a good marriage is different.”
As a young woman, she had observed traditional marriages and concluded, “Not for me. I was independent, I was out experiencing new things, I was definitely not interested in living the life my mother had.”
But now, through therapy, she has discovered she would like to marry.
Carol feels that she has “so much more to offer than I ever did at 18, 20, 30, 35 or even 40. I look better, I feel better, I am in such a great place. I have no doubt that I am going to meet a wonderful man. There are a lot of great men out there, and they aren’t all looking for 25-year-olds.”
Belatedly, and somewhat reluctantly, she has been learning the art of dating, gaining the confidence to say, “This is who I am. This is what I need. This is what I want.” As baby boomers, she says, “We didn’t really date. We went to parties.”
Still, she says, “I don’t have to marry to be whole. In Los Angeles, being single is OK. I choose to marry. There would be something missing if I didn’t marry.” She has joined both a singles club and a dating service, but isn’t into the bar scene and doesn’t “expect to meet men at the grocery store by the melon section.”
Because teaching is primarily a female occupation, she knows that “I have to put myself in the arena,” dress up and go to singles parties or “whatever it takes to put yourself out there.”
“Lucy,” a 41-year-old Long Beach nurse, is quick to dispel the notion that nurses often marry doctors. That’s movie stuff, she says, “not real. I never intended to do that.” She’d planned to marry her high school steady back in Pennsylvania. But, she says, “I wanted to go to college, and he didn’t want me to go.”
Since then, she’s had three long-term relationships but has yet to find that “best friend you can share your feelings with.” And, she adds, “The older I get, it really doesn’t matter anymore.” Even her parents have stopped asking, “How come you don’t settle down and get married?”
If she had to choose today, she might opt for marriage over career. Still, she loves nursing and says it would be difficult to give it up.
“Getting married is not crucial,” she says. “It’s not like I’m going to be real depressed or anything. Life goes on. But I’m pretty optimistic. I don’t think I’ll be single for the rest of my life.”
“Susan,” 44, a self-employed management consultant living in Hermosa Beach, says, “I have never been a person who was on a mission to find a husband. I have a very busy life. I have an excellent circle of friends.”
Nevertheless, she says she would like to have a serious relationship and knows that, if she is to meet eligible men, she must make overtures. She even placed a personal ad.
Marriage for its own sake holds no appeal--"I could have been married three times. You shouldn’t get married unless you have found your soul mate, someone you want to spend every single day with.”
Because working from home is isolating, she has joined a service club and sits on the boards of several nonprofit agencies. “I truly believe there’s somebody out there, but it takes work,” she says. “When you’re open to its happening, it’s likely to happen.”
Now, she thinks it’s “probably a little late” to think about having children. But being a stepmother would be OK, “unless there’s a lot of baggage going on with the ex-wives or whatever.”
She acknowledges, “There are lonely times, but I think there’s probably nothing lonelier than being in a rotten marriage.”
Laurie Levin, the “You Can’t Hurry Love” co-author, is now 49. She recently became engaged to Peter Butterfield, 50, a divorced computer software designer she had dated for six years.
“It wasn’t as though I was desperate to get married,” she says. “Unless it’s with the right person, what’s the point?”
Still, she says, “People were already looking at me as though I was weird. It’s almost preferable in this culture to be divorced than never married.”
She says she has learned that “if your life is sort of on the growing edge, and you have a focus, you have purpose, you can create your own happiness"--and, perhaps, meet Mr. Right.
“At the very worst, you’re going to have an interesting life experience.”