Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Will You Marry Me? The Newsweek Retraction

In 1986 Newsweek published a story about "older" women's chances of finding a man, which among other weird things stated that a forty-year-old woman was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to ever don a wedding dress. The article was based on incorrect and unpublished data, but it took a long time before any corrections appeared, and then mostly in places hidden from the mainstream. That mainstream bubbled merrily on about the horrors facing educated women who postpone marriage. What they could expect was loneliness and lots of cats, pretty much. Susan Faludi's Backlash summarizes the messages in the original Newsweek article and the ensuing "man shortage" journalism:

Newsweek's preachers found single women guilty of at least three deadly sins: Greed - they put their high-paying careers before the quest for a husband. Pride - they acted "as though it were not worth giving up space in their closets for anything less than Mr. Perfect." And sloth - they weren't really out there beating the bushes; "even though they say they want to marry, they may not want it enough."

Now came the judgment day. "For many economically independent women, the consequences of their actions have begun to set in," Newsweek intoned. "For years bright young women singlemindedly pursued their careers, assuming that when it was time for a husband they could pencil one in. They were wrong."

Well, it was Newsweek that was wrong, very wrong. It's so sweet of them to offer a retraction to the story, though next time, perhaps, they could do it in a little less than twenty years, please, and it could be a little stronger than this:

Rarely does a magazine story create the sort of firestorm sparked 20 years ago next week when NEWSWEEK reported on new demographic projections suggesting a rising number of women would never find a husband. Across the country, women reacted with anger, anxiety—and skepticism. The story reported that "white, college-educated women born in the mid-1950s who are still single at 30 have only a 20 percent chance of marrying. By the age of 35 the odds drop to 5 percent." Much of the ire focused on a single, now infamous line: that a single 40-year-old woman is "more likely to be killed by a terrorist" than to ever marry, the odds of which the researchers put at 2.6 percent. The terrorist comparison wasn't in the study, and it wasn't actually true (though it apparently didn't sound as inappropriate then as it does today, post 9/11). Months later, other demographers came out with new estimates suggesting a 40-year-old woman really had a 23 percent chance of marrying. Today, some researchers put the odds at more than 40 percent. Nevertheless, it quickly became entrenched in pop culture.

I bolded the only apology or retraction that I really spotted in the supposed retraction, though of course it was funny that they found most of the originally interviewed desperate single women all married and stuff.

"The story became quickly entrenched in pop culture"? Notice the passive voice in the sentence, as if journalists didn't milk it for every single drop afterwards. Read Backlash to find all the follow-up stories of the initial one, and then notice how these stories are still being written. If you doubt me, read this old post of mine which discusses how "the man shortage" is eternally with us but somehow never affects any other women except those who have education and good jobs.

There is much that I could say about this whole myth-making enterprise: How it's ok to do damage to women and not to apologize for twenty years for the fact that the damage was based on terrible research and no checking. How the next story with the same message is already in the works somewhere. How these stories never mention any possibility of a woman shortage or the fact that it is men who really get psychological and physical health benefits from marriage and should therefore be the ones eager to marry. How, were I a really sneaky goddess, I might even suspect that it's some guys who order these stories to be put out there so that they have better luck hunting for a wife.

So much juicy stuff! But I will be frugal and abstemious and discuss only one aspect of the Terrible Testosterone Drought in our maidenly bedrooms: The idea that it didn't really matter how wrong the original article was because it "felt" right. Amanda at Pandagon has a good take on that and so does Jessica Yellin in the New York Times, where she writes:

SO Newsweek has retracted its 1986 cover article that said a 40-year-old, single, white, college-educated woman was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to marry.

For a lot of women, the retraction doesn't matter. The article seems to have lodged itself permanently in the national psyche.

"That Newsweek cover struck terror in the hearts of single women everywhere," said Candace Bushnell, whose New York Observer column, Sex and the City, famously chronicled the angst of single women in Manhattan.


In its cover story last week, Newsweek acknowledged that its original article was a reaction to — or a misreading of — the large-scale social changes at the time: women were staying single longer, rising further in their careers and having children later or even not at all.

"The women's movement wrought enormous change in intimate life," said Suzanna Danuta Walters, who is chairwoman of the gender studies department at Indiana University. "We shouldn't have been surprised women were chastised for creating this situation. The panic was a socially and culturally constructed panic."

I bolded the important bit. Why were many women panicking over their apparently dwindling chances of wedlock? Why do these articles about "man shortages" seem right to so many? The answer, quite astonishingly, is that they feel true because the media is in the business of trend-making and myth-building and one of the false myths the society has decided to give us is the eternally lonely educated spinster myth. In short, we have been reading and hearing and seeing the same myth many, many times before. Of course it feels "right".

We have been played, ladies, played like so many pianos, and the panicky reactions are an intended part of the music, which always plays on the triple sins of pride, greed and sloth. In women only, note. Men are not greedy or proud or lazy if they don't marry young.

Not even all older women seem to suffer from man shortage. Working class women are never interviewed in articles worrying about the sadness of female singlehood. It's as if there are no older single women who are not professionals, and such an omission should cause some discords in the music we hear, because it hints on the real message of these songs: That it is women who are educated and who have careers who are greedy, proud and lazy.

Will you marry me now? I have some vacancies among my trophy husbands on the mantelpiece. But I'd be as happy a goddess all single. It's the society that is not really happy with single women. Or independent women in general.