Girls Gone Hyper

Posted on 15 February 2012


FEBRUARY 14, 2012

A feminist and a social conservative try to play Cupid.

“For the first time in history, women are better educated, more ambitious and arguably more successful than men,” Bill Bennett declared in a recent column. But the good news about women is accompanied by bad news about men, which also turns out to be bad news for women. Here’s Bennett’s argument, which echoes (though without credit) Kay Hymowitz’s recent book, “Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys”:
Now, society has rightly celebrated the ascension of one sex. We said, “You go girl,” and they went. We celebrate the ascension of women but what will we do about what appears to be the very real decline of the other sex?
The data does not bode well for men. In 1970, men earned 60% of all college degrees. In 1980, the figure fell to 50%, by 2006 it was 43%. Women now surpass men in college degrees by almost three to two. Women’s earnings grew 44% in real dollars from 1970 to 2007, compared with 6% growth for men. . . .
If you don’t believe the numbers, just ask young women about men today. You will find them talking about prolonged adolescence and men who refuse to grow up. I’ve heard too many young women asking, “Where are the decent single men?”

Today’s young, educated women can find jobs with relative ease. Finding a husband is a different story.

Baloney, counters Stephanie Coontz in a New York Times op-ed: “For a woman seeking a satisfying relationship as well as a secure economic future, there has never been a better time to be or become highly educated.”

Coontz subtly reframes the question so as to yield a comforting answer for affluent distaff lonelyhearts. She makes a fairly persuasive case that educated women are at an advantage over uneducated ones in today’s mate market. That shouldn’t be surprising. As Charles Murray shows in his new book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” marriage has declined much less sharply among the educated and affluent than among the so-called working class. But it has still declined, and it can be expected to decline more absent a reversal of the trend toward greater female education and accomplishment.

The statistics Coontz marshals are less impressive than they seem. Of women who graduated college before 1900, 3 out of 4 never married. By 1950, she notes, a female college grad in her late 50s was nearly five times as likely never to have married than a nongraduate. Today, that gap has almost vanished, and there is no gap for women in their late 30s.

What Coontz doesn’t say is that this seemingly encouraging trend is almost certainly the result of selection bias. College-educated women were statistical outliers in 1900 or 1950. As the proportion of women who have college degrees expanded enormously, one would expect a convergence with the overall female population. In other words, married women were much more likely to have college degrees in 2010 than in 1900 or 1950. But when you put it that way, it’s a commonplace.

Coontz also cites survey data on male mate preference. In 1939, men were asked to rank “the importance of 18 traits in prospective wives.” In 2008, a team of sociologists led by Christine Whelan of the University of Pittsburgh repeated the survey and found considerable differences. Most notably “education, intelligence” rose from No. 11 to No. 4 in the list of most-valued traits. According to Coontz, this shows that men are no longer “threatened by the thought of a woman with more or even as much education as they had.”

There are several problems here. First, it isn’t clear to what extent responses to such surveys reflect the heart’s desire as opposed to cultural conditioning or social expectation. To be sure, both affect the decisions people make, but when cultural expectations are not in line with human nature, the latter can win out in ugly and disruptive ways. Remember Anthony Weiner? In 1995 he made the politically correct assertion that he wanted to marry “someone smarter than me.” He acted on that purported desire, but his subsequent behavior suggested he was deluding himself about what he really wanted.

Second, the Whelan data give no reason to think men ever had a preference for uneducated or dull women. In the 1939 survey, in fact, they valued “intelligence, education” more highly than “good looks” (which rose to No. 8 in 2008 from No. 14). Coontz marshals only anecdotal evidence of a male aversion to educated women, such as this:
One man who taught at a women’s college in the 1950s told me his colleagues used to joke that once they knew a woman had earned a Ph.D., they didn’t even need to ask what she had specialized in: clearly, it was in “Putting Hubby Down.”

To the extent that joke was funny because it was true, it probably reflects the same selection bias we noted earlier. Women who defied social norms to pursue advanced degrees probably tended to have astringent personalities. Today, to pursue an education is to comply with social norms. Hence an agreeable woman is vastly more likely now than then to get a Ph.D.

Most important, the problem that female education poses to marriage is a product of female, not male, mate preference–of what Coontz calls “the cultural ideal of hypergamy–that women must marry up.”

That is where Coontz goes badly wrong. Any evolutionary psychologist will tell you that female hypergamy–more broadly defined as the drive to mate with dominant males–is an animal instinct, not a product of human culture, which can only restrain or direct it. Seemingly without realizing it, Coontz provides powerful anecdotal evidence in support of that assertion:
When the journalist Liza Mundy interviewed young women for her forthcoming book on female breadwinners, she found that most wanted a mate they could “look up to” or “admire”–and didn’t think they could admire a man who was less educated than they were. During a talk I recently gave to a women’s group in San Francisco, an audience member said, “I want him to respect what I know, but I also want him to know just a little more than me.” One of my students once told me, “it’s exciting to be a bit in awe of a guy.”
For a century, women have binged on romance novels that encouraged them to associate intimidation with infatuation; it’s no wonder that this emotional hangover still lingers.

Coontz labors mightily to dismiss these hypergamous sentiments as the product of culture. But in the reality of 21st-century postfeminist America, they are highly countercultural–especially at gathering of “a women’s group,” and in San Francisco of all places! They are evidence of human nature too strong for ideology to overcome.

For young ladies anxious about spending their lives alone, Coontz offers this advice:
Valentine’s Day is a perfect time to reject the idea that the ideal man is taller, richer, more knowledgeable, more renowned or more powerful. The most important predictor of marital happiness for a woman is not how much she looks up to her husband but how sensitive he is to her emotional cues and how willing he is to share the housework and child-care. And those traits are often easier to find in a low-key guy than a powerhouse.
I am not arguing that women ought to “settle.”

That last sentence is both funny and poignant. Coontz has just advised young ladies to marry short, poor, ignorant, obscure, ineffectual men who will help with household chores. If that’s not settling, the word has no meaning.

Bennett, meanwhile, offers advice (or advises others to offer it) to those overgrown boys:
We need to respond to this culture that sends confusing signals to young men, a culture that is agnostic about what it wants men to be, with a clear and achievable notion of manhood.
The Founding Fathers believed, and the evidence still shows, that industriousness, marriage and religion are a very important basis for male empowerment and achievement. We may need to say to a number of our twenty-something men, “Get off the video games five hours a day, get yourself together, get a challenging job and get married.” It’s time for men to man up.

Bennett’s “notion of manhood” entails education, work and responsibility. These are all worthy values, but in the postfeminist age, there is nothing to distinguish them from the prevailing ideal of womanhood.

In this regard, Bennett is in harmony with Coontz, who urges women to seek out men for their willingness to do what used to be considered women’s work. Both think that more equality between the sexes will make marriage more attractive. But if female hypergamy is an immutable feature of humanity’s animal nature, it will have the opposite effect.

Getty Images
Masculine fantasy

Bennett disparages immature men who waste their lives playing video games. To be sure, such dudes are pathetic. But there’s a reason they’re attracted to that particular pursuit. Video games are a simulacrum of masculine virtue: challenge, mastery, control.

There is a corresponding harsh female stereotype: the childless single woman with a cat or dog that serves as an outlet for her unfulfilled maternal instincts. Bennett and Coontz would dearly love to put these two together, but there’s a reason they’re alone. In a culture of sexual equality or female dominance, women and men who aren’t especially charming, brilliant or beautiful don’t have much to offer each other. Happy Valentine’s Day.