The "marriage penalty" kicks the bucket

Educated, professionally successful women aren't less likely to get married. Yippee!


Page Rockwell
November 21, 2006 5:45AM (UTC)

Contrary to what we've been reading in Forbes and on the New York Times Op-Ed page in the last year, women are not missing out on happy couplehood by pursuing education and fulfilling careers. On Sunday, the Times magazine reported that while it used to be "commonplace for doctors to marry nurses and executives to marry secretaries," modern men and women are increasingly going in for "assortative mating" or choosing partners with educational backgrounds and income levels comparable to their own. Writer Annie Murphy Paul attributes the change to more couples meeting in college and "other educational settings," and she astutely notes that while mainstream America once favored single-sex social activities like the Elks Club and sewing circles, coed socializing has become more socially acceptable and desirable, and young people often meet up at gyms, coffee shops and bars (and probably at work, too). It's cool to think that the relaxing of social strictures has contributed to more egalitarian mate selection -- and it seems that the partnerships themselves are becoming more egalitarian, too. Paul notes that "men and women have become more alike in what they want from a marriage partner" and suggests that women may evaluate prospective mates based on their "willingness to wash dishes."

So the good news is, conservative pundits' claim that women must choose between heart and head is hogwash; "the 'marriage penalty' once paid by highly educated women has all but disappeared: among women born after 1960, a college graduate is more likely to marry than her less-educated counterpart," Paul reports. The bad news is that not all women have access to higher education and professional advancement, and "as husbands and wives have moved closer together on measures of education and income, the divide between well-educated, well-paid couples and their less-privileged counterparts has widened."

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Accordingly, Paul wonders: "Are we achieving more egalitarian marriages at the cost of a more egalitarian society?" Or, put another way, are privileged women enjoying their enlightened unions at the expense of lower-income women? The question reminds me of Caitlin Flanagan's 2004 Atlantic Monthly talker, "How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement" (subscription required; the gist of it is that professional women's advancement and liberation from the drudgery of housework depended on cheap, mostly immigrant labor, which Flanagan reads as a sign of feminism's elitist hypocrisy, though some of us see it as more of a problem of eroding worker protections and of limited corporate support for families in the age of global capitalism). Because feminism intends to address the various inequities faced by all women, but is often criticized for focusing disproportionately on the challenges faced by upper-class women, it's particularly unsettling to think of women's prospects as zero-sum, with advantaged women's gains being disadvantaged women's losses.

But the answer to Paul's rhetorical question turns out to be no: Americans have long tended to marry within their social classes, with "Cinderella marriages" being the exception rather than the rule. This social "stratification was obscured by the fact that the female halves of these couples often did not work or pursue advanced degrees," Paul writes. "Now that women who are in a position to do so are attending college and graduate school and joining the professions, the economic consequences of Americans' assortative mating habits are becoming clearer." Assortative mating reveals and perpetuates the nation's class divide, but it isn't the cause -- and since few would argue that marriage should serve primarily as a mechanism for economic advancement, it doesn't seem that changing Americans' marrying habits is the best way to tackle inequality. Some better areas to tackle: healthcare for low-income families, flextime for working parents and need-based financial aid for college students.


Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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