Cross-class marriage

The New York Times is doing an excellent series on class issues this month, and the feature today is about what happens when people marry across class lines. The whole article is interesting, but one part in particular stuck out:

Even as more people marry across racial and religious lines, often to partners who match them closely in other respects, fewer are choosing partners with a different level of education. While most of those marriages used to involve men marrying women with less education, studies have found, lately that pattern has flipped, so that by 2000, the majority involved women, like Ms. Woolner, marrying men with less schooling – the combination most likely to end in divorce.


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7 comments for “Cross-class marriage

  1. May 19, 2005 at 8:44 am

    Hm, I’m just random, but maybe it has to do with how women graduate college more than men nowadays? This also reminds me of an article in esscence which was pretty much like “This woman married *gasp* a janitor! and she’s doing fine1* in their eternal “OMG man shortage!!!” series.

  2. Thomas
    May 19, 2005 at 8:47 am

    Today’s features included a woman who went from foster care in the appalachian coal mining country to the top of her law school class, and then moved back to the holler to take in her brother’s children, who were in foster care.

    It moved me. Two things struck me as like my family’s experience. My mother’s experiences with an absent father, mentally ill mother, lots of siblings and no food or running water were just like hers — though my mother was from Maine, not Eastern Kentucky.

    Second, I can identify with her experiences feeling out of place in either world. I was raised the son of a union carpenter and a secretary, who moved to a bad section of an affluent community to get me into a good public school. I always understood that my classmates, from elementary school to law school, had advantages and connections that I didn’t have. Partially in response, I have developed a very broad knowledge base, and now I rarely feel I’m outgunned in general knowledge.

    Finally, she said something that expressed what I have long felt, and that I feel ever more accutely as I raise my son:

    The class a person is born into, she said, is the starting point on the continuum. “If your goal is to become, on a national scale, a very important person, you can’t start way back on the continuum, because you have too much to make up in one lifetime. You have to make up the distance you can in your lifetime so that your kids can then make up the distance in their lifetime.”

    I’ve always had the sense that my family is a multigenerational project. My father left a dying coal mining region in Scotland to give me a better life, when I was just an idea. My parents understood that education was the way out, and they pushed that idea for my sister and I from very early.

    But I had no idea what one did after school. When I was in, say, fourth or fifth grade, I knew I would go to college, and then get an advanced degree in something — but I had no idea what one did after that. Nobody in my family had gone farther than trade school. I literally couldn’t conceptualize a role for myself in the world after I had an education. I had nobody I could identify with to emulate. Doctor and lawyers and senators and CEOs — those were a different species. They were rich men’s sons. [by seventh grade, I wanted to be a lawyer, because teachers and relatives kept telling me that’s what educated people did when they love to argue. That turned out to be a good idea — but it was a long time before I believed I really could get there.]

    My son will never feel that way. He starts from a different place. His mother and father are educated, professional people who know important people, and he’ll grow up with role models who do things he might like to do when he is an adult. My father came to this country with a trade school degree, earning a living in a trade that he didn’t really choose. My mother was an autodidact with no formal learning or career, but she made sure her children loved learning and respected education. They got us this far.

    One last thing. I’m afraid for America. My parents pulled our family from the working class into the middle class. But with real wages eroding, with the social safety net fraying, and with access to good public schools ever more limited to expensive communities, it would be harder to do that today. I had discipline problems, and in today’s school system I might have been tossed. Immigration is tougher today than it was. It seems like my family climbed a long ladder to where we are, but now some folks are pulling it up; trying to return us to the gilded age, where inter-class mobility is an exceedingly rare fairy-tale.

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  4. May 19, 2005 at 12:22 pm

    I find it particularly interesting that a more educated woman and a less educated man are more likely to divorce than vice-versa. On some levels, this shouldn’t be surprising, but my romantic side says that anytime one can bring a different, interesting angle to a relationship the relationship will do fine.

    Perhaps we should begin taking a different view of the lack of formal education and begin to re-value the autodidact.

    More later. I’m on the laptop today and I hate this thing.

  5. janet
    May 19, 2005 at 3:09 pm

    I rarely think about this, but my parent’s marriage crosses a couple of important social boundaries:

    1. Cultural/religious. They were both raised to be atheists, but my mother’s family was Jewish, and my father’s was mostly Protestant (one of his grandmothers was Catholic). This was more of a big deal in 1955, when they married, than it is now.

    2. Class. My mother grew up prosperous professional class. Her father was a surgeon, and successful enough that when his sister, who lived in another state and had a different last name, developed breast cancer and asked her doctor to recommend the very best, he recommended (you guessed it) my grandfather. (And even though it’s not generally considered to be a good idea to perform surgery on a close relative, he did perform the surgery, and donated a pint of blood afterwards.) My father, on the other hand, was the son of disclassed Bohemians. His father died in a car accident when he was 5 years old. It was 1935, and his mother had a high school education, no skills to speak of, and no useful property, which I hope gives you at least some idea of what his childhood was like. Oh, and when he was about 10, his mother married a chronically unemployed alcoholic.

    My father worked his way through college at UC Berkeley, which was still possible in those days and now probably wouldn’t be for someone in his situation. (He told me that he once survived for a week on a bag of oranges and a box of oatmeal cookies.) He and my mom met there, married after she graduated, and are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary this August. I have never seen a stronger marriage, and I don’t know how they pulled it off. As I said, I rarely think about how different their backgrounds are.

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