It Was Such a Perfect Way to Tie Fear of Terrorism With Fear of Being Alone. Too Bad We Have to Admit it Was Bullshit.

You might remember, or you might simply have heard, about that infamous Newsweek story 20 years ago that said that never-married women over 40 had a greater chance of dying in a terrorist attack than finding a husband. Susan Faludi debunked the story shortly after publication in a short piece that eventually grew into Backlash. Which you may have heard of as well.

Yet Newsweek never admitted its error. That is, until now. And man, they’re not happy about it.

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.

So, the terrorist scaremongering is a moldy oldie in the Newsweek hit parade. They’re the ones who came up with that line to sell the story, and they seem reluctant to have to admit that their figures were a bit inflated. Possibly because fear of terrorism moves magazines so well in the post-9/11 world. I think they may also be annoyed that they have to remind readers that terrorism wasn’t invented by Al Qaeda, that there was plenty of terrorism in Europe during the 80s, what with the nightclub and airport bombings. The myth of American exceptionalism, shot to hell.

And how disingenuous of them to say, “Whoops, even though our conclusion made to sell magazines was completely, utterly wrong, we never bothered to correct it because it ‘entered the pop culture.’ And now it’s ‘out there’ and we have to treat it as fact.” This is the same line used to justify rummaging through Hillary Clinton’s panty drawer — the Times runs a 50-source, front-page, entirely speculative piece on the Clintons’ sex life for no good reason at all, and then the Washington media picks up on it and considers it legitimate news because, well, it’s “out there.”

And they also had to admit that their predictive powers weren’t so good:

To mark the 20th anniversary of this controversial story, NEWSWEEK reporters sought out and and re-interviewed as many of the women in the story as we could find. Out of 14 single women in the article—not counting the therapists, authors and other experts—NEWSWEEK located 11. Among them, eight ended up marrying, and three remain single. Several had children. None divorced.

So, all the women they had presented as doomed, DOOMED! to a life as spinsters with only their careers and their 47 cats to keep them warm either married or deliberately rejected marriage. They seem to think that advances in fertility technology and online dating are responsible, but provide no support for that — because God forbid they let this story stay “out there” for 20 years and have to admit they were *completely* wrong. Because, as Scott points out, there’s still mileage to be had out of undercutting educated women:

To amplify Amanda’s post on the exploding of Newsweek’s “women over 40 never get married for the first time” myth, Jeff Zaslow has an excellent article which further elaborates on the article’s perniciousness–in particular, what he correctly identifies as the original article’s “core message” that “educated, career-focused women risk spending their lives alone.” First, with respect to the individual women discussed in the Newsweek (most of whom ended up, in fact, being married) an important addendum:

Well, it turns out that less than 10% of college-educated women now ages 50 to 60 have never been married, census records show. And I did something far less scientific: I checked in with 10 women who in 1986 appeared in Newsweek and other media reports about the study. Eight of them had found a husband. Two others were single by choice.

So, in other words, they’ve got literally nothing. Not only does the systematic data refute them, but once you consider that some women might actually not want to get married, they don’t even have a single cherry-picked anecdote.

Zastow’s article also points out that, when you actually look at the figures, well-educated women ages 40-44 are actually more likely to be married than women with high school educations of the same age (though, as Lance Mannion points out in the comments to Scott’s post, that doesn’t really tell you that they’re more likely to get married then; they may simply have waited longer to marry, which tends to correlate with lower divorce rates).

But scare tactics — OH MY GOD YOU’LL NEVER GET MARRIED AND THEN YOU’LL DIE ALONE AND BE EATEN BY YOUR CATS IF YOU DON’T GET KILLED BY A TERRORIST FIRST!!! — are a favorite way to get women to go back to the kitchen. If the patriarchy can’t convince women that their uteruses will fall out if they go to college, then maybe telling them their children will suffer if they work will do the trick, or that they’re not really women if they don’t get married and have children right out of high school, or that they shouldn’t worry their heads about their own checking accounts, or that no-fault divorce is really harmful to them, or that they’re not going to be happy trying to juggle everything, so might as well stay home, and under no circumstances should they try to be anything but submissive to their husbands or they’ll lose them. My favorite, of course, is the “you’re exactly the kind of person who should be having lots of babies,” which is generally said to educated white women. Because, you know, those people are outbreeding us, and you have a duty to produce lots of white babies, so you better “lower your standards” and find yourself a man young, BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE AND YOUR OVARIES DRY UP! Amanda has similar thoughts:

The need to threaten uppity women with visions of spinsterhood has always struck me as one of the oddest hang-ups of patriarchy-lovers. I’ve had untold numbers of fugly guys tell me, since I started to blog, that I’m past my “sell-by” date. The underlying meaning of it–that a woman with her own mind and ideas and goals is inherently repulsive–is pretty unmistakeable. What makes it even nastier is many of the people telling you that the mere act of having your own life before you think about getting married is repulsive often pretend to bundle this up as “concern” for you. Because they don’t want your independence getting in the way of what’s really important–marrying young and having it fall apart as you rebel against the constraints of making a marriage predicated on your submission.

Just take a tiptoe through the archives of this blog, Pandagon, and plenty of others for examples of this very phenomenon. Hell, the collected works of John Tierney, Caitlin Flanagan and David Brooks are just oozing with this kind of crap. And pay particular attention to the way the media treats Hillary Clinton (and to a lesser extent, Nancy Pelosi). As Scott says, the subtext to all the coverage of her, and her ambitions, is that educated women must be suppressed:

Anyway, the willingness of people–including the only female op-ed writer for EventheliberalNewYorkTimes–to recycle these well-worn reactionary falsehoods is, I think, the central lesson to the way the media approaches Hillary Clinton’s marriage :educated women can’t win. If you divorce an unfaithful husband, you’re undermining a sacred institution with your unwillingness to sacrifice for the good of the family; if you keep the marriage together, you’re a frigid materialist putting your ambitions above your personal dignity. Similarly, 50 years ago women weren’t supposed to be doctors and lawyers and such; once they started entering those professions in significant numbers, it was going to stop them from getting laid and having families, and we’ll just keep saying it even if it’s false. As Caitlin Flanagan’s career proves, there certainly is never a shortage of men who run media outlets who want to hear it.


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24 comments for “It Was Such a Perfect Way to Tie Fear of Terrorism With Fear of Being Alone. Too Bad We Have to Admit it Was Bullshit.

  1. joe o
    May 26, 2006 at 12:49 pm

    Even at 2.6% that meant that Newsweek thought that 2-3 million women were going to die of terrorist attacks. Actual female terrorist attack deaths since 1986 in the US is about 5-6 thousand even with the unpredented terrorist attack of 9/11.

  2. Thomas
    May 26, 2006 at 2:08 pm

    I have come to have contempt for reporters as a profession.

  3. jiggavegas
    May 26, 2006 at 8:00 pm

    I read Backlash at 15 and it quite literally changed my life. I stopped being afraid to talk about how I saw sexism and patriarchal structures harming women in the world around me. I stopped believing all those breathless articles about the dangers of educated females. And now, with an MFA and a life and career ahead of me, I know that I can choose when to marry, when to bear children, and to not let anyone tell me what my “sell-by” date is. People who would use that term are long past theirs, since it is my firm belief that your mind, your principles, and your contributions make you valuable– not your reproductive system.

  4. Kat
    May 26, 2006 at 8:46 pm

    Oh wow, I remember when that article came out. At the time a lot of my early 20’s friends went into a panic about it. If I remember right, they did an episode of Designing Women about it. I am totally dating myself there, I guess. (I was really into that show back then, but it did explore some women’s issues that had been overlooked).

    At the time, I had a friend a few years older than me that took this whole business very seriously and went into panic mode. She even bought a book all about how to position yourself to meet the right guy (strategies included getting employment in men-rich environments like on oil rigs, I’m not kidding). A whole market sprang up on books like that.

    Just like me, she ended up marrying too young for the wrong reasons (it was expected, it was part of the plan… etc.), and just like me her first marriage failed.

    There was already a lot of pressure on some women to get married and that darn article really didn’t help matters.

  5. zuzu
    May 26, 2006 at 8:50 pm

    At the time, I had a friend a few years older than me that took this whole business very seriously and went into panic mode. She even bought a book all about how to position yourself to meet the right guy (strategies included getting employment in men-rich environments like on oil rigs, I’m not kidding). A whole market sprang up on books like that.

    Tracy?

    I’m not surprised about the oil-rig thing; that was around the same time as Alaska Men magazine started to be popular. Not that they let their “real” motto be known: “Alaska: where the odds are good, but the goods are odd.” Which sort of summed up the whole “Mudd’s Women” episode of Star Trek: TOS.

  6. Kat
    May 26, 2006 at 8:54 pm

    Tracy?

    Yes!

    Hey, and can I sue Newsweek for putting pressure on me to get married to soon? hmmmmm………

  7. zuzu
    May 26, 2006 at 8:55 pm

    I’m afraid the SoL makes you SOL.

  8. Jim
    May 27, 2006 at 9:48 am

    I’d like to point out that this crap isn’t just designed to make women feel bad. It’s also designed to make men feel good: the sort of men who go apoplectic at the thought that women can survive quite happily on their own without getting desperate for male company. That’s an important reason why such myths have staying power; patriarchal men enjoy thinking, “If women don’t come crawling to us soon enough, they’re doomed forever. That’ll teach ’em.”

    In other words, the usual delusions of mystic male power…

  9. cory
    May 27, 2006 at 10:38 am

    Actual female terrorist attack deaths since 1986 in the US is about 5-6 thousand even with the unpredented terrorist attack of 9/11.

    You lost me here. If the 9-11 toll was about 3000, with half women (1500), where and when were 3500-4500 women killed in terrorist attacks in the US since 1986?

  10. Red Right Hand
    May 27, 2006 at 10:42 am

    If I remember right, they did an episode of Designing Women about it.

    Screenwriter Norah Ephron and director Rob Reiner also used (and debunked) the myth in their 1989 film When Harry Met Sally…

  11. mouse
    May 27, 2006 at 10:59 am

    I remember the Newsweek article well. I thought of it off and on as I planned my wedding…and had to chuckle. I married for the first time last Saturday. I’m 45 years old. Heh.

  12. May 27, 2006 at 11:29 am

    That myth also figured in Sleepless in Seattle; as I recall, the women in the movie were haunted by the story, and in that movie it never really did get debunked.

    To me, being frantic to marry in your twenties (as opposed to actually marrying in your twenties if you meet someone you like – which I did) has always seemed like a recipe for misery. After all, the number of guys who wanted to have sex with me in my twenties way outnumbered the guys who were remotely likely to want to marry me. And since the “you’d better not wait too long” style of advice seems to want you to follow up every lead like a job seeker about to run out of severance who doesn’t dare pass up an interview, the net effect seemed to be that I was supposed to spend lots of time with guys who wanted to have sex with me, putting them off and making sure they didn’t have sex with me. All of this on the off chance that one of these guys who wanted to have sex with me might decide that, after all, he also wanted to marry me, and that I might find him a more appealing prospective husband on close acquaintance than I did at our first meeting. Definitely not my cup of tea.

  13. May 27, 2006 at 11:49 am

    The Newsweek article gave rise to a lot of hilarity in my statistics course. One of my female students, pretending to be worried that her college education would keep her from getting a man before a terrorist blew her up, sweetly inquired, “Would it be a cute terrorist?”

    Take stats in school, kiddies. It’s math for self defense.

  14. May 27, 2006 at 12:33 pm

    You know, there is a TON of people out there who still believe this crap. It was used as a punchline in a much more recent film, “The First Wives’ Club.” Of course, the lady who uttered it later repented, and pointed out to her grown daughter that she doesn’t need anything, including a man. She’s successful, she has a child who loves her, and friends who care for her, and, let’s face it, her husband was a dick. There. No need to come rushing back to him just because being single is viewed as a disease.

    Personally, I am not single, quite passionately in love, actually, but at 21, marriage seems like a false step even if it is to someone I adore. Who knows where we’ll be in five years anyway? This doesn’t stop an entire freakin’ platoon of busybodies to keep bugging me about “the ring” and whether or not “he’s serious,” of course, but I’m a pro at ignoring this stuff nowadays.

    Guess I won’t be subscribing to Newsweek after all.

  15. Barry Champlain
    May 27, 2006 at 2:05 pm

    Hello there. Hope I meet your discretionary criteria to post my first comment, here.

    … a favorite way to get women to go back to the kitchen. If the patriarchy can’t convince women that…

    You come so close to the burning question, but as far as I can discern, you never really ask it: a favorite way for WHOM to get women to do such-and-such? Precisely WHAT patriarchy?

    Simply put, that flashing red light article in Newsweek which spawned “Backlash”, looking at it from the POV of a 2006 that’s hip to the narrative control of movement conservatism (in effect at the time of the article’s publication, but virtually unknown to most Americans), did not just come about as a result of coffee and crullers between a reporter and editor.

    A child of twelve today could figure out that some, shall we say, force of nature greased the way for cultural right wing talking points to find their way into a major newsmagazine, in the guise of a fact-checked, anecdotal article from the bastions of Establishment Journalism. The question we should be asking ourselves is WHO maneuvered that piece into Newsweek? Right-wing think tank? P.R. firm?

    As one who read “Backlash” when it came out and was startled by what I learned, in retrospect, Faludi was merely an early identifier of one small facet (the alleged failure of “women’s lib”) of the mass cultural propaganda effort, with which movement conservatism turned out to have been piloting our nation’s discourse, since the rise of Reagan. We are today one hell of a lot hepper to their jive… and as such, this notorious article which, in historical perspective, overtly stepped in it, must be outed as the plant it obviously was.

    Names must be named. The genesis of its publication must be investigated, 20-odd years after it did its damage.

  16. GJ
    May 27, 2006 at 4:16 pm

    People actually read Time and Newsweek?

    I thought they were just things you leafed through while waiting for the dentist.

  17. Kat
    May 27, 2006 at 4:19 pm

    I was supposed to spend lots of time with guys who wanted to have sex with me, putting them off and making sure they didn’t have sex with me. All of this on the off chance that one of these guys who wanted to have sex with me might decide that, after all, he also wanted to marry me, and that I might find him a more appealing prospective husband on close acquaintance than I did at our first meeting.

    Did we have the same mother?

  18. May 27, 2006 at 4:49 pm

    In fairness to my mother (who is pretty cool and who made Our Bodies, Our Selves available to me at a young age), she wasn’t the source of that. I got it from elsewhere.

    My grandmother, on the other hand, is ultra conservative. I can remember her suggesting to me, after I’d married, when I was talking about looking for a better job, that now that I was married my career aspirations would totally change. It didn’t sound as if they were supposed to change for the better.

  19. junk science
    May 28, 2006 at 4:04 pm

    patriarchal men enjoy thinking, “If women don’t come crawling to us soon enough, they’re doomed forever. That’ll teach ‘em.”

    The sad thing is, if they’d relax and stop being so defensive, they’d have a much better chance of meeting women they actually liked who could like them back. Most of them probably aren’t genuinely turned off by the idea of a woman with her own mind; they’re just afraid a woman like that wouldn’t want anything to do with them.

  20. May 28, 2006 at 7:24 pm

    cory:

    You lost me here. If the 9-11 toll was about 3000, with half women (1500), where and when were 3500-4500 women killed in terrorist attacks in the US since 1986?

    That stumped me, too, for a moment. Then I realized: all the time, on tv and in the movies. Sort of like all those MIAs running around in Vietnam, looking for a woman over 40 with a PhD to marry. Talk about a brutal dating scene.

  21. May 29, 2006 at 2:40 am

    My grandmother, on the other hand, is ultra conservative. I can remember her suggesting to me, after I’d married, when I was talking about looking for a better job, that now that I was married my career aspirations would totally change. It didn’t sound as if they were supposed to change for the better.

    Ah yes, the old generation gap. And don’t be silly. You don’t want to make your poor hubby feel insecure, do you? You have to let him feel like he’s the real breadwinner and your job is just a hobby in comparison. And don’t even think about making more money than him or having a better renumerated career. My dentist is married to a high-school teacher. Apparently her mom was very concerned about if the marriage would last, because she said no man with just a bachelor’s degree and a teaching diploma will feel like he can measure up to a woman who gets called Doctor. Apparently she’d be better off marrying another dentist, or some guy with even more qualifications than her, because when a man feels outclassed by his wife’s career, it destroys a marriage. Or so they say. My dentist has been married for over a decade, so I’m not sure what they’re so worried about. HE wasn’t bothered by it, but a whole bunch of other people were convinced it was a recipe ofr disaster. Now that you’re a married woman, you need to focus on not outshinihng his achievements, supporting your husband’s career and hosting dinner parties for his work friends. And making friends with his boss’s wife, of course.

    Mind you, making friends with the boss’s wife can be a good way to get power. The office manager of the political science department at my university was close friends with the wife of the head of the department. I worked there as an RA for a while, and rumour had it that any young profs the office manager disliked didn’t get tenure. That may have just been a rumour, mind you, but she seemed to take great pleasure in squashing an egotistical new hire who just gotten his PhD from Harvard or Princeton or some other very fancy place (and everybody knew it. I had a class with him, and he managed to work that fact into just about every lecture). Anyway, he tried to boss the secretaries into doing his scut work, and was totally chewed out in public. Complained to the head of the department about hte office manager and was told SHE’D already complained about him, and he should watch his step. But that’s an office manager making friends with the boss’s wife to advance her own career, not her husband’s.

    Unacceptable personal ambition. She should get all her fulfilment through hubby and kiddos, and if she doesn’t feel fulfilled, that’s what Valium’s for. Even today, look at two-career families. Even if the wife works just as full-time as the husband, who’s the one who stays home when the kids are sick, and leaves early to pick them up from daycare if there’s a crisis, or comes in late because they had a pediatrician’s appointment in the morning? Very often the wife.

    I was visiting relatives once when I was in high school, and my great-aunt and my granny were loudly discussing which university I should go to and what I should study there, without bothering to ask me what I wanted to do. My great-uncle must have noticed that I was looking a little dismayed, but he misunderstood the reason. He leaned over and said reassuringly, “Don’t worry dear. You’re very pretty. You won’t have to go to university. You’ll get married!” He honestly meant it to make me feel better, but I narrowly avoided spitting tea all over the table.

    Even in the early-seventies, my mom had a work friend who quit her job to become a housewife as soon as she got married. And she didn’t have a baby until over a year after the wedding. Apparently my mom and her other co-workers had figured she might be pregnant when she abruptly quit her job shortly before the wedding, but nope, she quit to look after her new husband. And she was a teacher, so she had an education.

    Could be worse, though. My great-aunt was born in 1904 (and yes, she’s still alive. Still lives in her own house!) and when she wanted to go to university in the 1920’s, her parents had a fit. Made her go to finishing school instead, but it didn’t take. She wanted to study engineering, but that was too manly a profession. So she compromised and asked to study architecture, which was slightly more acceptable because there’s an artistic component. So they let her train to be an architect, not really expecting that she’d make it through the whole four years or however long the course ran for, but much to their astonishment she qualified with the third highest mark in her class.

    She wanted to work as an architect, but her parents pitched a fit again. They said she had to come back home and act like a proper young lady so she could look seriously for a husband now she’d got this architecture nonsense out of her system. Seriously, she went on an interview for a job at an architectural firm, parents found out, and told her they’d never speak to her again if she did something so unladylike as work for a living. So she came home and sulked and arranged flowers and helped her mother supervise the servants, and was apparently extremely unpleasant to the suitable young men who were invited over for tea/bridge/dinner.

    And finally her parents got sick of her stomping around the house like a little black raincloud and said she could leave home and work in London. My great-grandfather bought her a hat-shop in Kensington, because running a hat shop was a ladylike endeavour for a girl who was mysteriously finding difficulty getting a husband. And she took that hat-shop, and she ran it very well and made quite a success of it.

    Ironic really. She wanted to study engineering, and her father had an engineering firm. BOth her brothers were engineers who went into the family business, but neither of them were much good either at engineering or business. They trained as engineers primarily because they knew they’d have a guaranteed job in the family firm. My grandad got offered a full scholarship to study History at Cambridge, and he turned it down in favour of engineering, where his marks weren’t sufficient for a scholarship. My great-aunt got excellent marks while training to be an architect, and if her first love was engineering, she probably would’ve done just as well there. Plus, she made a success of her hatshop from a management POV. My grandad and great-uncle, being mediocre engineers and mediocre businessmen to boot, took over the family company after their father died, and proceeded to run it into the ground. The one sibling with a talent for engineering AND a talent for business/management, and she wasn’t allowed anywhere near the family firm because of her genitals. If my great-aunt had been allowed to take charge back in the day, I might be a trust-fund brat! Oh wait, judging by public shenanigans fo most trust fund brats, maybe that’s a good thing.

  22. ks
    May 30, 2006 at 8:47 am

    The one sibling with a talent for engineering AND a talent for business/management, and she wasn’t allowed anywhere near the family firm because of her genitals.

    That same thing happened to my cousin several years ago. Her dad had a successful business, but left it to her brother when he died. J (the brother) is a really nice guy, but he just doesn’t have a head for business and now the business is no more and he works for a landscaping company. S is amazingly smart and insanely business savvy and the business would have probably thrived if she were running it. But because she is a girl, she didn’t even get a part of the company in the will, the whole thing went straight to her (sweet, but way less capable) brother. However, she went to school, became an accountant, and now is one of the head accountants for Massey Coal back home and making a boatload of money. Which is a totally evil business and I (and other family members) have tried to talk her into working someplace else, but she’s totally sold out and is making 6 figures with stock options and a net worth of a few million at 33 years old. She says she wants to retire by 40 and do charity work or maybe teach after that.

  23. tracy
    May 30, 2006 at 3:07 pm

    what’s REALLY funny about the whole “women shouldn’t be more successful than their husbands” thing is my mother (who grew up a feminist in the 50’s and 60’s, went to college for business and didnt have kids until she was in her 30s) is now having a hard time accepting the fact that I’m most likely going to be more successful than my boyfriend will likely be. He’s a retail manager and a hair stylist, I’m a designer with a college degree who’s getting a masters. What she doesn’t seem to get is that what he wants from life is to be a soccer mom, and what I want from life is everything else. In spite of all the assurances I’ve given her about how I won’t have to take time off work (beyond maternity leave) to raise kids like she did, she just can’t seem to believe that he would be ok with that. Apparently, as a woman, I shouldn’t be the breadwinner of the family, and she wants me to find someone “more successful”. To that I say, “what, you mean like Dad?” (who she happens to be divorcing in two weeks after 10 years of strife between them)

    I just don’t get it. It seems all the old school feminists just don’t seem to understand that it IS possible to have your cake and eat it too. They, as much as anyone, seem to be forcing their daughters to make choices that are now unneccessary.

  24. May 30, 2006 at 4:39 pm

    I was phenomenally lucky growing up – I don’t have a very large extended family, but nearly all the women were educated and self-sufficient. In particular I looked up to my two great-aunts, who worked their way through Columbia, worked for the Army doing radio work during World War II, and never married, living in separate apartments about a block apart in New York City all their lives. They’re my heroes. Similarly, my mom has two master’s degrees, while my dad only graduated college. Everyone expected me to be educated and have a successful career in something, as long as it was something I wanted. Marriage would come, but it was secondary to achieving a career.

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