Unhappily ever after

An article in Forbes says that marrying a woman who makes over $30,000 a year will ensure a life of illness, filth and cuckolding. How did we get here again?

Published August 24, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

"Don't Marry Career Women" is what the headline of the Aug. 22 Forbes.com story read. Just like that. "Don't Marry Career Women." It was easy to blink, shake your head like you were seeing things. Surely it was a joke, something out of the Onion. A provocative headline on a more nuanced story. But then came the text, by Michael Noer, an executive editor and writer for Forbes.com.

He conceded that his flashy suggestion might come as a buzz kill for many guys, "particularly successful men" who might be "attracted to women with similar goals and aspirations." And why shouldn't they be, he continued. "After all, your typical career girl is well-educated, ambitious, informed and engaged. All seemingly good things, right? Sure  at least until you get married. Then, to put it bluntly, the more successful she is the more likely she is to grow dissatisfied with you. Sound familiar?"

Yeah, it did sound familiar. Familiar like a figment from the 1950s, the bad old days that today's young women know about only from their mothers and from kitschy retro-magnets. But it was 2006 and here was a genuine dinosaur of unenlightened gender incivility, published not in some righty rag but in a supposedly mainstream business publication -- in which Bono recently invested! -- a magazine that ostensibly has female readers and that covers female business people and that has for several years published an annual list of the 100 most powerful women in the world. That publication was telling its readers that working women make bad wives!

Well, for 48 hours at least. Sometime around 5:30 on Wednesday, Aug. 23, two days after its publication, "Don't Marry Career Women" disappeared from the Forbes.com Web site, along with an earlier story by Noer, titled "The Economics of Prostitution," in which he compared "wives" to "whores" and wrote that "the implication remains that wives and whores are -- if not exactly like Coke and Pepsi -- something akin to champagne and beer. The same sort of thing." Both stories had been linked on many Web sites that almost uniformly derided them and their author.

But about three hours after the story's sudden absence from the Web, a visitor to the Forbes.com site found "Careers and Marriage," a debate. Editors had reframed Noer's story as one half of a "point-counterpoint" discussion, lightening its heft as an institutional statement by pairing it with a rebuttal by married female columnist Elizabeth Corcoran. "Don't Marry a Lazy Man" was the title of Corcoran's take, which flaccidly asserted that "Studies aside, modern marriage is a two way street. Men should own up to their responsibilities, too." Corcoran's retort rested on the fact that despite being the kind of woman Noer thinks would make a bad wife, she and her husband have been married for 18 years and that this month they plan to engage in some "snuggling at a mountain-winery concert." As of this writing, Noer's "Economics of Prostitution" story was still unavailable online.

"The story about careers was taken down so we could put up a new, enhanced package which includes Michael's original story," said a Forbes.com spokeswoman in an e-mail late Wednesday. She said that she did not know when or if the "wife or whore" story would go back up. On Tuesday, the same spokeswoman had e-mailed Salon to say that "the piece and its sourcing speaks [sic] for itself. Forbes is known for its provocative opinion and Forbes.com's readership -- both male and female -- expects nothing less." Noer was out of the office this week -- it has been reported elsewhere that he was ironically attending a wedding -- and Forbes.com editor Paul Maidment was also on vacation.

The furor over "Don't Marry Career Women" is a testament to the speed of an angry blogosphere, but also to the anachronistic and wholly outrageous tone of the article. It was easy to wonder how we had traveled through space and time to a moment at which it was OK to publish this kind of thing. Was it a result of the recent press success of Caitlin Flanagan, who urged women to stay at home and service their spouses? Was it the repeated chirruping of David Brooks and John Tierney about how educated women will end up lonely spinsters? Had our sense of what passes for enlightened thought eroded so steadily that at last some twerp at Forbes was able to just explode it without any of his bosses even noticing for a while? A while being since February, in the case of the "Economics of Prostitution" piece.

In "Don't Marry Career Women" Noer earnestly cataloged the deficiencies of an employed wife, cheekily dropping phrases like "career girls" and "folks," and putting "feminist" in scare quotes as if he were a wannabe Rat-Packer, his hair slick with Bryl-Cream.

Much of the data on which Noer drew came from conservative think tanks or dubious-sounding publications. The National Marriage Project. "What's Love Got to Do With It," a 2006 study that even Noer admitted is "controversial." Sylvia Ann Hewlett. (He also cited more mainstream sources, like USA Today.) But the traditionalist, reactionary bent of many of his footnoted sources only amplified his police siren of a thesis.

An accompanying slide show listed the "Nine Reasons to Steer Clear of Career Women," starting with the news that a professionally successful woman won't want to marry you -- "you" being Noer's male reader; he didn't bother to pretend that he might have any female eyes skimming his work -- because high-achieving women "search less intensively for a match," and "have higher standards for an acceptable match than women who work less and earn less."

If your working girl should unwisely deign to hitch her wagon to your star, according to Noer, it won't be long before she's cheating on you, a quagmire illustrated by a photo of a hussy lounging in red lingerie, barely concealing her adulterous assets. According to Noer, working women stray when a wife ventures outside the home, because a job increases the chances that "[she'll] meet someone [she] likes more than you." That surely doesn't sound like a stretch in this case.

Noer's list went on. Rosie, your riveting bride, will be less likely to bear you children. If she does, she'll be unhappy because wealthier women are "used to 'a professional life, a fun, active, entertaining life,'" and will therefore be dismayed at the un-fun and un-entertaining responsibilities of child-rearing. If you marry one of these witches, "Your house will be dirtier," since studies show that a woman who makes more than $15 an hour "will do 1.9 hours less housework a week." Perhaps the saddest result of your careerist heterosexual union is that "You're more likely to fall ill." That because according to research he's unearthed, wives who work more than 40 hours a week "do not have adequate time to monitor their husband's [sic] health and healthy behavior, to manage their husband's [sic] emotional well-being or buffer his workplace stress."

These daggers of poetic injustice were accompanied by photos of a virile bearded man looking glum, a creamy white shag carpet dusted with a squalid layer of cheez-kurls, unvacuumed thanks to those 1.9 hours of undone housework, and a working mother so tormented by her lot that a solitary, glycerine tear slurked down her cheek.

The piece was so utterly ludicrous that for some, it was hard to do much but laugh. "I'm deeply grateful to Forbes Magazine for saving many women the trouble of dealing with men who can't tolerate equal partnerships, take care of their own health, clean up after themselves or have the sexual confidence to survive, other than a double standard of sexual behavior," wrote Gloria Steinem in an e-mail. "Since a disproportionate number of such unconfident and boring guys apparently read Forbes, the magazine has performed a real service."

Steinem wasn't the only reader to raise her eyebrows and emit a pitying chuckle. Linda Hirshman, who has recently urged women to stay in the workforce and make their families work by limiting the number of children they have, "marrying down," and negotiating for truly equitable divisions of domestic work, is essentially Michael Noer's worst nightmare. Her response to the story was to drily note that "women are not natural slaves, as so many sociobiologists would like us to believe. Ergo, they get harder to bargain with as they get more resources. This is actually good news. If men want doormats, they will have to marry dummies and anticipate dependents. There's a price to acquiring someone willing to take a bad bargain."

And while many of the successful women that Forbes covers were unavailable for comment in this third week of August (on vacation, undoubtedly engaging in the kind of "fun, active, entertaining life" that makes them sulky about domestic drudgery), some were in their offices  and pissed. "It's incredibly disappointing to see them publish a piece that makes such gross generalizations about working women," said Travelocity president and CEO Michelle Peluso, who has been featured in Forbes and who said she planned to approach the magazine directly about the piece. "Especially considering how hard women have worked to balance being great wives, mothers, managers, employees and individuals. This article feels like one that would have been behind the times were it published in 1950, nevermind 2006."

If the whole debacle feels pre-historicized, there's a reason for it, said Hirshman by phone. In part, its anachronistic feel comes from the fact that it is based on backward-looking data rather than anything that might account for or anticipate changing social and sexual attitudes. In this, it resembles the famous Newsweek piece claiming that women over 35 had a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than getting married, a story that was recently recanted 20 years too late.

"Even assuming [Noer] was relying on good data, all it is is information from the past, which is that women's expectations rose while husbands' behaviors did not change," said Hirshman. "If you have to choose between acting like a jerk and marrying a bimbo on one hand and acting like a mensch and marrying a Harvard grad on the other, then I think men may change their behavior." A piece like Noer's, which assumed that men are not capable of changing, not capable, say, of taking on more "non-market" domestic work or being otherwise equal partners who enjoy robust relationships, is, Hirshman argued, "very misanthropic and anti-male."

She's right. But what's also right is that this piece -- that, yes, treated men like limp, pasty, hideous creatures who can only be happy if they feel dominant and unthreatened -- was actually dressed up as purely anti-female.

And not just dressed up -- tailored to his ideological specifications. At one point, while making his point that high-earning women aren't as motivated to marry, Noer admitted that the same statistics he was relying on showed that for black women, the opposite was true. This serious disqualifier -- that the assertion does not seem to be true for a large chunk of the female population -- did not deter him. For his purposes, black women did not seem to count. Neither did not-rich ones. As he so poetically put it, "we're not talking about a high-school dropout minding a cash register. For our purposes, a 'career girl' has a university-level (or higher) education, works more than 35 hours a week outside the home and makes more than $30,000 a year."

At another point in his story, Noer also conceded that some of the studies cited "have concluded that working outside the home actually increases marital stability, at least when the marriage is a happy one. But even in these studies, wives' employment does correlate positively to divorce rates, when the marriage is of 'low marital quality.'" To translate this into a completely common-sense observation: Women who work tend to have a better ability to get out of rotten marriages than women who do not work and have no means to support themselves. Guess what? This is great news.

But look at what all this hemming and hawing and all the misandry of Noer's argument got boiled down to. After all, it was not headlined "Don't Marry White Career Girls" or "If You Are Really Self-Loathing and Weak, Try to Find Someone Who Doesn't Work and Will Consent to Live With You Out of Financial Desperation for the Rest of Her Life."

No. Just "Don't Marry Career Women." It's a dinosaur. And what's scary is that it has walked the earth again.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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