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The Mrs. Myth

That 'man shortage' bombshell of the '80s has been debunked. Many of today's fortysomething women may be looking for mates, but they're not willing to settle for less than love.

January 30, 1998|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

June 2, 1986: A Newsweek cover story, "The Marriage Crunch," asks: "Is It Too Late for Prince Charming?" Citing a study by three researchers from Yale and Harvard, it drops a bombshell on never-wed, white, college-educated women 40 or older: They are "more likely to be killed by a terrorist" than to find husbands.

This "man shortage," widely ballyhooed by the media, created a wave of near-hysteria among women of a certain age who had it all--except husbands. At a time when their sisters were marrying at the median age of 24, these baby boomers had just been told that bachelors of suitable age were so scarce that, past 40, they had only a 1.3% chance of snagging one.

The idea that these women were doomed to be members of some "lonely hearts club" did, indeed, alarm many, recalls author Susan Faludi, then in her 20s. But she, for one, was skeptical of the report.

"It started the ball rolling," Faludi says, on what was to become her seminal 1991 book, "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women." The real issue, to her, was "the way that the study was used to beat women over the head for having pursued education and jobs."

Los Angeles writer-anthropologist Laurie Levin, then nearing 40 and still single, recalls, "I saw that statistic and I went, 'Wait a minute! This can't be right.' "

Anxious to refute it, she teamed with L.A. writer-editor Laura Golden Bellotti to write "You Can't Hurry Love:

An Intimate Look at First Marriages After 40."

Their 1992 book emphasized: "Women and men who marry for the first time later in life aren't social misfits or unlovable leftovers, but represent a fast-growing and relatively new marriage phenomenon."

Says Levin, "I wanted to give women like me a sense that their fate was not sealed."

The Newsweek report was also refuted by a Census Bureau demographer, who concluded that those over-40 women actually had a 17%-23% chance of making a first marriage. As for the "man shortage," the reality was--and is--that there are slightly more unmarried men than unmarried women between the ages of 40 and 44. (Census data for 1995 put the ratio at 1.01 to 1.)

Still, the National Center for Health Statistics reports, a woman in her mid-to-late 20s is five times as likely to marry for the first time as a woman 40-44. And, as she ages, her chances lessen.

According to Faludi, "The one place where there really is a man shortage is in the 55-and-up group."

Today, the median age at first marriage for women is 24.5, for men, 26.9. But those who would spread gloom and doom about older women's prospects based solely on statistics don't take into account that many prefer the single life or opt for cohabitation.

Other over-40s with otherwise full lives acknowledge that there's something missing--and they're out there looking.

Faludi, who has never married but is in a long-term relationship, observes: "Obviously, there's still this yearning for some magical solution, or somebody to take care of you, which is not limited to women. It's just more acceptable for women to express it."

And, alas, we live in a youth-oriented culture. "Unfortunately, men seem to think that young women are best," says professional matchmaker Jill Hankoff, founder of the West L.A.-based California Singles social club.

But, she adds, a woman who makes a real effort, and is open to compromise, has "a decent chance. Women of a certain age have to look beyond that prince they were convinced by their mother they were entitled to."

Westside psychologist Annette Baran, in a 1986 Times story on the frustration felt by older single women in the wake of the "man shortage" alarm, said that psychotherapists were seeing record numbers of "single women who have relationship problems." She called it "a phenomenon of this era."

Now, 12 years later, Baran counsels "single women who haven't figured out that they're reaching middle age until suddenly they're very middle-aged"--and marriage-minded.

If told today that they were more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to find a spouse, would they feel panicky, as so many did in 1986? "Maybe even more so," says Baran. "The desire to lead a conventional, conformist life, even staying home with babies, doesn't sound so bad anymore. There is much more of the 'let me register at Bloomingdale's and everybody buy me my crystal and flatware' " mentality.

But Faludi disputes the modern panic factor. "I doubt it," she says, pointing out that "the more economically independent a woman is, the less likely she is to be anxious to marry." And, she adds, "Because young women are pursuing higher education in larger numbers than ever, and accumulating greater debt than ever, it might make sense to work for a few years before you become a total housewife."

Among the unwed over-40s in California Singles are a number of professional women who, Hankoff says, "just got so darned busy and time slipped away."

*

Some, requesting anonymity, talked about their thoughts on, and prospects for, marriage.

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