The upside of marrying down

I USED TO TELL my snobbish, hyper-educated girlfriends that “marrying down” was the most under-recognized social maneuver of the modern era. Why suffer the hassles of Type A investment bankers and narcissistic executives when you could, for example, find a really nice plumber who could rub your feet and fix the toilet?

The bulk of these pronouncements took place when I was dating waiters and used-bookstore clerks. Granted, I didn’t marry any of these men, but the truth, I insisted, was right there in the numbers. It still is. U.S. census data project that in the 2005-06 academic year, women will have earned 59% of the bachelor’s degrees and 60% of the master’s degrees. It’s also been reported that women now make up slightly more than half of law and medical students. In other words, if we want to find a mate whose education and earning potential are equal to or greater than our own, we’re up against some serious odds.

Of course, we’re always being told we’re too picky. We who were raised with stratospheric self-expectations, the dating experts say, need to relax our standards in the man department, trading requirements such as “must have read Proust in the original French” to “must be able to use a telephone” (preferably to call and ask us out, but why push it?). Few of these experts ever bother to connect the dots between educational trends and the so-called man shortage. But an article on the front page of last Sunday’s New York Times shed light on a phenomenon that dating guides still seem afraid to address outright: the perceived ineligibility of bachelors without college degrees.

To a lot of single women, this story, which presented a cavalcade of middle-aged men who seemed to have been left in the dust by their high-achieving female counterparts, served as yet another bullet in their arsenal of complaints about dating. At first glance, I saw it as a confirmation of my old theory, a rallying call for single, educated women to give up their architect/CEO/chief-of-pediatric-surgery fantasies and widen their searches to include working-class men. Besides, one of the subjects in the article, a 41-year-old sanitation worker in New York City, earns $80,000 a year, spends his weekends with his friends and their neighboring kids and longs for a family of his own. Sounds like a catch to me.


But then I called Linda R. Hirshman, a former law and philosophy professor and the author of “Get To Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World.” Her 92-page book, which describes an epidemic of highly educated, privileged women dropping out of the workforce to raise children and then never regaining their professional footing, outlines a plan to counteract this syndrome, including “consider a reproductive strike.” (“Have a baby,” she writes, “just don’t have two.”)

I thought Hirshman might have something to say about the idea of “marrying down.” What if the aspiring female CEO or any college-educated female married a plumber or a sanitation worker? Would his lower-stress job allow him to participate more equally in child care and housework? Is our class-consciousness keeping us from finding the supportive partners we deserve?

Hirshman says no. Like that famous (now disproved) Newsweek statistic about how women over 35 are more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to ever get married, Hirshman believes that the New York Times article was designed “to scare women into behaving themselves by not seriously pursuing careers.” She said she thought the story was statistically insignificant -- there really aren’t all that many less-educated, unmarried men. “If you look closely at the numbers,” she said, “you can see that they’re talking about a tiny percentage.” Moreover, women’s higher rates of college attendance do not translate into higher professional status -- so the divide is a false one.

“Women go to college because they’re obedient, they get good grades, they turn in their papers on time,” Hirshman said. “But so many people go to college today that it is equivalent to what high school was in the 1950s. It guarantees you nothing.”

Hirshman believes that the only way to rise professionally is to get on a career track and stay on it, something she thinks women are not encouraged to do. And though she sees pitfalls in the traditional notion of the power couple -- “if you both are going through the elite-job hazing rituals simultaneously while having children ... the odds are that the woman is going to have to give up her ambitions and professional potential,” she writes -- she doesn’t think marrying down offers many solutions.

“The most important thing women can do is to make it clear that they’ve invested in their well-being and will not give it up,” Hirshman told me. “I do think there are men out there who are committed to seeing their wives flourish. But these guys in the article aren’t necessarily those guys. Besides, that sanitation worker will get married.”

As it happens, I tried calling the sanitation worker several times to find out if he’d been deluged with women wanting to go out with him. But every time I called, his phone rang and rang. Perhaps it’s not college degrees these men need. It’s answering machines.