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A feminist version of 'Joe Millionaire'?

By Wendy McElroy
web posted May 24, 2004

The popular reality show "Joe Millionaire" chronicled a fierce competition among 20 women to marry a man who was advertised as a multi-millionaire but who was actually a low-paid construction worker. Audiences squirmed as the contestants portrayed women as stereotypical, money-grubbing, superficial social climbers.

Recently, I attended a colloquium on the disparity between the number of women earning college degrees compared to that of men, and found myself to be a squirming audience member. Although the participants were supposed to be addressing a widely discussed phenomenon spotlighted by a 2003 study entitled "The Growing Gender Gaps in College Enrollment and Degree Attainment in the U.S. and Their Potential Economic and Social Consequences," the participants' focus was on their own personal prospects for marriage and those of their daughters.

"My daughter will have to marry down," stated a sociologist at the colloquium, meaning that her daughter would have to "settle" for a husband with less education and a lower income. A black sociologist added that for years, women in her peer group have had to marry down if they wanted to marry at all.

The study, conducted by Andrew Sum and colleagues, revealed that, in 2003, over 56 percent of college students were women. It concluded, "In every major age and race-ethnic group, women across the nation now enroll in college, persist in college, and graduate from college at considerably higher rates than men." The changing ratio of female to male students is a social phenomenon worthy of speculation. As women assume the role of breadwinner, are men becoming less economically driven? Does an anti-male bias in education discourage male advancement, as another study suggests?

Yet, the concern of the colloquium participants was a growing trend of women marrying men who were less educated and earned less money than they did. Minority women expressed the greatest concern … and with reason. According to the Sum study, "in 1999-2000, for every 100 degrees awarded to Black men, Black women were awarded 188 associate degrees, 192 bachelor degrees, and 221 master's degrees." Hispanic women earned nearly 130 degrees for every 100 awarded to Hispanic men. Sum concluded that highly educated women would have to consider "marrying down." He labeled the prospect as "a serious economic and cultural problem."

Sum's conclusion has been echoed in popular articles. For example, an ABC News article, subtitled "College Gender Gap Could Mean Women Lose Mating Game," asked, "Must Women Go Slummin'?"

My emotional response to the colloquium was swift and sharply negative.

First, I suspect that a social problem is in the process of being manufactured. At every juncture in women's lives today, sociologists and hype-hungry media seem eager to discover a social crisis. We're too thin; we're too fat. We're career obsessed; we're quitting work to become housewives. Now, after decades of urging girls to become Ph.D.s, women are suddenly discovered to be too educated for their own good.

The increase in well-educated women should elicit sustained applause that is tempered only by concern about equal access to education for males. There is no more of a "marriage crisis" now than there was when male students dominated campuses. Moreover, the perceived problem is self-solving. When the Australian newspaper The Age, reported a similar "problem" -- "there are an astonishing 47,000 more women than men with degrees in this age group [age 25 to 29]" -- it included the solution. Census figures for 2001 showed that 12 percent of women aged 25 to 29 with university degrees married men without them.

Marriage is a healthy institution that adapts quickly to circumstance; marriage patterns may be shifting to adjust. There is a "marriage crisis" only for women and in-laws who demand an attorney or doctor for a husband and do not wish to welcome a plumber or mechanic into the family. This is their personal problem, not a social one. Indeed, if marrying down constituted a crisis, society would have collapsed long ago from the tendency of men to wed "below their station." Marrying down is called a social crisis only when women's choices appear to be limited. This reflects both hypocrisy and elitism.

As I listened to colloquium participants discuss marrying down, two truths became clear although neither was explicitly acknowledged. First, the same women who argued for minority rights, a more balanced equality, and advancement of the underprivileged seemed to be genuinely horrified at the prospect of dealing with "lesser" and "lower" men as equals in their personal lives. Second, "lesser" and "lower" was being defined solely with reference to income and formal education.

By their definition, my mother married down. She was a high school graduate; my father had a sixth-grade education. Yet no one in my family ever viewed the intelligent and loving man my father was as lesser and lower than my mother. At the cocktail hour following the colloquium, I mentioned my father to several participants as a counter-example to their concerns. One woman gave an amazing response. She said there was little difference between a high school and sixth-grade education, but a significant schism between a college and high school education. In short, marrying down was not a problem for women, per se, but only for upper-class women.

I didn't bother to follow-up with the suggestion that "lesser" and "lower" should be defined according to a man's character, not his income.

I still squirm at the thought of how many successful women now seem to view a large percentage of decent single men. Namely, as lesser and lower. 

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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