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.