By 1996, intelligence and education had moved up to No. 5 on men’s ranking of desirable qualities in a mate. The desire for a good cook and housekeeper had dropped to 14th place, near the bottom of the 18-point scale. The sociologist Christine B. Whelan reports that by 2008, men’s interest in a woman’s education and intelligence had risen to No. 4, just after mutual attraction, dependable character and emotional stability.
The result has been a historic reversal of what the economist Elaina Rose calls the “success” penalty for educated women. By 2008, the percentage of college-educated white women ages 55 to 59 who had never been married was down to 9 percent, just 3 points higher than their counterparts without college degrees. And among women 35 to 39, there was no longer any difference in the percentage who were married.
African-American women are less likely to marry than white women overall, but educated black women are considerably more likely to marry than their less-educated counterparts. As of 2008, 70 percent of African-American female college graduates had married, compared with 60 percent of high school graduates and just 53 percent of high school dropouts.
One reason educated heterosexual women may worry about their marriage prospects today is that overall marriage rates have been slipping since 1980. But they have slipped less for educated women than for anyone else. Furthermore, college-educated women, once they do marry, are much less likely to divorce. As a result, by age 30, and especially at ages 35 and 40, college-educated women are significantly more likely to be married than any other group. And according to calculations by the economist Betsey Stevenson, an educated woman still single at age 40 is much more likely to marry in the next decade than her less educated counterparts.
It’s good news that men now rank characteristics like “intelligence” more highly than they rank characteristics that basically boil down to “willing to serve my every need.” It’s also good news, in my opinion, that people are marrying later — not just because later marriages are more stable, but because I’m a fan of the “taking a lot of time to figure yourself out” life plan. Which of course doesn’t necessarily exclude a partner, and plenty of women marry young and have great marriages that allow them deeper self-exploration. But I suspect that’s the exception rather than the rule.
Coontz also points out that engrained sexism impacts women, too, and a lot of us want men who are more traditionally successful than we are:
Yet when the journalist Liza Mundy interviewed young women for her forthcoming book on female breadwinners, she found that most wanted a mate they could “look up to” or “admire” — and didn’t think they could admire a man who was less educated than they were. During a talk I recently gave to a women’s group in San Francisco, an audience member said, “I want him to respect what I know, but I also want him to know just a little more than me.” One of my students once told me, “it’s exciting to be a bit in awe of a guy.”
In reading that, though, I recognize myself to a point. Of course I want a partner who I look up to and admire. Of course I want someone who I am in awe of. Of course I want someone who knows more than I do about certain things. The difference is that I don’t necessarily attach that to education, and finding a man who is more educated than I am is not a priority. And ideally, I want a man who I think is smarter than me — and a man who thinks I’m smarter than him.