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> Columns > Boston Globe > Single women

Single women

By Cathy Young | April 29, 2002

THE BOOK ''Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children'' by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett has launched America's latest round of soul-searching and hand-wringing over women's new roles. Hewlett, whose survey found that more than half of 35-year-old professional women have no children and between a third and half are still childless at 40, warns that many successful women may miss out on having children altogether. She is concerned that women are focusing too much on their careers in their prime childbearing years and that reports of miraculous advances in fertility treatments are causing them to underestimate the risks of delayed childbearing.

Some feminists see these much-publicized claims as yet another sign of a ''backlash'' - a warning to uppity women to repent, give up their unwomanly ambition, and get barefoot and pregnant. Others say that the real culprit is a society that still demands single-minded devotion to one's career as the price of success. Still others blame men: In her column in The New York Times, Maureen Dowd asserted that smart and ambitious women can't find mates because too many men find them intimidating. Men, she wrote, have an atavistic need to dominate and to ''protect their eggshell egos from high-achieving women.''

The reality is considerably more complicated. Take it from an educated, fairly successful woman who, single and childless at 38, could have been a case study in Hewlett's book.

The notion that men are threatened by high-achieving women can be quickly dispelled by a look at the weddings announcements in any newspaper. Female executives, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals are hardly absent from these pages. Studies show that while women do put a greater premium on a mate's career success, men and women attach roughly equal importance to a partner's intelligence.

Nevertheless, it is true that success tends to expand the pool of potential mates for men and to shrink it for women. Why? Only in passing does Dowd acknowledge that to a large extent, the fault rests with women themselves. Despite the feminist revolution, the female preference for ''marrying up'' survives. Even successful women tend to look for more successful men and to regard less accomplished, lower-earning males as ineligible. It's not unusual for a male corporate executive to marry a schoolteacher; the reverse is fairly rare.

A couple of years ago, I came across a letter to an online advice columnist from a woman who complained that she and her friends - all attractive, intelligent career women - were having a hard time finding boyfriends. Men who were her professional equals, the woman lamented, were obnoxious, arrogant jerks who preferred brainless bimbos. However, she balked at the idea of dating a less upwardly mobile man and having to ''subsidize'' him with her hard-earned money. (And she thought her male peers were obnoxious!)

This is not to caricature career women as arrogant and materialistic. Some women instinctively see a lower-status man as not masculine enough; whether or not this attitude is encoded in our genes, as evolutionary psychologists believe, it is a part of our cultural baggage. A woman may also avoid less successful men in the belief that they will find her intimidating. Both women and men may be victims of each other's preconceptions: A man may avoid a more successful woman in the belief that she won't give him the time of the day.

But there are other reasons many career women stay single for a long time. To put it plainly, they have more choices, facing less economic and social pressure to marry. It's not that women don't want to marry; rather, they are often reluctant to ''settle'' for Mr. Not-Quite-Right. In the 1999 book ''The First Sex,'' anthropologist Helen Fisher reports that in a 1965 survey, more than three out of four college women said they would marry a man they didn't love if he had all the qualities they wanted in a spouse (interestingly, only one-third of men were willing to marry a woman they didn't love). By 1991, about nine out of 10 college students, men and women alike, said they would only marry for love.

Some women later revise their expectations, concluding that a family is more important to them than romantic love. Others feel that while they would like to marry and have children, they can still have a fulfilling life without marriage and motherhood (I fall into that category). Who's to say that these women are victims of their new success rather than beneficiaries of their new choices?

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