The spinster cycle
I'm a 32-year-old woman with a Ph.D. I'm beyond happy with my career path, but I'm not meeting men I'm impressed with or inspired to see again. A girlfriend sent me a New York Times op-ed by a historian named Stephanie Coontz, who said that highly educated women can find a man if they drop "the cultural ideal of hypergamy — that women must marry up." Coontz advises women to "reject the idea that the ideal man is taller, richer, more knowledgeable, more renowned or more powerful." She claims a woman's marital happiness is predicted not by 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." She then adds, "I'm not arguing that women ought to 'settle.'" Really? Sounds that way to me. — Dismayed
Yes, you can have it all — a high-powered education, a high-powered career, and the perfect high-powered man to go with. Of course, it helps if you're willing to relax your standards a little, like by widening your pool of acceptable male partners to include the recently deceased.
I respect Stephanie Coontz as a historian, but as a forecaster of economic and romantic possibilities for women, I have to give her a thumbs-down. Coontz claims that "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." Actually, as doctorate holders "Occupying" sleeping bags outside city halls will tell you, that depends on what you're becoming highly educated in. Ph.D. in financial engineering? Hedge fund, here you come. Ph.D. in Tibetan gender studies? You'll be lucky to be teaching the merits of pulverized lavender in the body oils section of the food co-op.
Coontz is wrong again in deeming hypergamy — women's preference for men of a higher socio-economic status — a cultural construct. The preference for the alpha male is biological, an evolutionary adaptation that exists in women across cultures — and species. (Do we really think the lady peacock wants the alpha male peacock because she's been watching way too much Desperate Housewives?)
Some feminist academics claim women only want big bucks/high status men because they lack those things themselves. But a number of studies by evolutionary psychologists have found that women with big bucks and big jobs want men with bigger bucks and bigger jobs. Even women who are feminists. Dr. Bruce J. Ellis writes in The Adapted Mind that when 15 feminist leaders described their ideal man, they repeatedly used words like "very rich," "brilliant" and "genius" (and they didn't mean "genius with a baby wipe!").
So, if you've become the man you would've married in the '50s, don't be surprised if your mating pool starts to seem about the size of the one that comes with Barbie's Dream House. Biology is neither fair nor kind. What those pushing feel-good sociology don't want to believe or tell you is that you increase your options by being hot — or hotting yourself up the best you can. Obviously, looks aren't all that matter, but while your female genes are urging you to blow past the hot pool boy to get to the moderately attractive captain of industry, men evolved to prioritize looks in women, so powerful men will date powerfully beautiful waitresses and baristas. As evolutionary psychologist Dr. David Buss writes, "Women's physical attractiveness is the best known predictor of the occupational status of the man she marries and the best known predictor of hypergamy."
There isn't a person on the planet who doesn't have to settle. (Maybe Brad Pitt farts in bed.) Want kids? You're more likely to find yourself a husband to have them with if you do as Coontz suggests: go for a man who's shorter, poorer and not that intellectually exciting but who's emotionally present and willing to be appointed vice president of diaper rash. Problem solved — if you can keep from seething with contempt for his lack of ambition and intellect.
Lack of respect for one's spouse is not the ground happy marriages are built on. That's why settling is most wisely discussed not as some blanket policy for women, but in terms of what an individual woman wants and what she's willing and able to give up to get it. Realistically assessing that for yourself is how you find your happiest medium — between possibly being in a panic to find a sperm donor at 42 and trying to make it work now with some guy who watches the soaps after dusting a few surfaces and drinking a few too many glasses of blush wine.
Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org (advicegoddess.com). Alkon is the author of I See Rude People: One Woman's Battle To Beat Some Manners Into Impolite Society.