Saturday, December 30, 2006


By Christine B. Whelan

Simon & Schuster, $24, 256 pages


Maureen Dowd and other bitter, frustrated, successful women of a certain age have made a cottage industry out of spreading dire warnings to the young smart set about the trade-off between academic and professional success on the one hand and “finding a man” on the other. While it’s all well and good to reap the fruits of equality and challenge male peers in the classroom, boardroom and courtroom, men are still looking to “marry their secretaries.”

Even in this new liberated millennium, a successful single woman in her 30s “has a greater chance of getting killed by terrorists than of getting married” — to paraphrase a line from that relationship classic, “When Harry Met Sally.” Men don’t want to marry women who are ambitious, or who make more money than they do. They are intimidated by graduate degrees and find independent, opinionated women off-putting.

Poppycock! says independent social scientist Christine Whelan — Princeton undergrad, Oxford Ph.D. — in a provocative new book that explains “Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women.” The women Ms. Whelan dubs SWANS (Strong Women Achievers, No Spouse) actually marry at the same rate as all other women, just a bit later — once they’ve finished their degrees, started careers, etc. (Full disclosure: Ms. Whelan is my college classmate and edited the Daily Princetonian when I was a columnist at that paper.)

Drawing on the wealth of demographic data in the 2000 U.S. Census and a specially commissioned Harris Interactive poll, Ms. Whelan establishes that the myth of a certain cohort being “overqualified for love” is just that and that what gentleman prefer is brains. And she cannot wait to proselytize this romantic gospel — ask her about the book and every other sentence proclaims “good news” — to the millions of SWANS who experience unnecessary anxiety caused by the misperception that they are facing uphill relationship odds.

Of course, Ms. Whelan may be a tad biased, having met her fiancee while writing this book (on the inside flap she shows off a prominent engagement ring).

In their mothers’ and grandmothers’ generation, women who earned advanced degrees or high salaries were more likely to pay the price in their personal life, but today’s bachelorette has to be a “good catch” herself if she wants to land a smart, successful husband.

For example, 90 percent of high-achieving men want a woman as or more intelligent than they are, 71 percent said a woman’s career and educational success make her more desirable and 68 percent think that smart women make better mothers. (Speaking of which, 72 percent of mothers of high-achieving men worked outside the home, so SWANS are well-placed for men looking to “marry their mommies.”)

Most tellingly, the same percentage of women with degrees are married at ages 30 to 34 as those with less education. And the next census, in 2010, will only confirm that all vestiges of the “success penalty” have disappeared.

You’ll have to read the book to see statistics like these laid out in their engaging glory, as well as anecdotes tying together the story of the women (and some men) whom Ms. Whelan interviewed in the course of her research. There really is no downside to the picture, but I do wonder whether the fact that smart men now marry smart women was news to anyone other than Maureen Dowd and other feminist dinosaurs.

I mean, have those who perpetuate the myths Ms. Whelan debunks ever talked to today’s men of marriageable age? Have young successful women themselves — those who buy into the conventional wisdom of yesteryear — ever actually asked their male peers whether they found ambition, intelligence, wit and sass attractive? Heck, does anyone besides David Brooks read the New York Times wedding announcements anymore?

Being a late-20s man with a few degrees and good job myself, I can attest that the biggest frustration in my life and those of my friends is that all these wonderful high-achieving women — at least the attractive ones — are taken long before we ever meet them. Indeed, we wrestle with how much we’re willing to lower our educational/vocational standards for potential mates. And the most common reaction from my buddies when they heard that I was reviewing this book was: “So where I can I find these girls?”

The frustration many eligible bachelors feel leads me to wonder whether this “success penalty” idea is now nothing more than a crutch used by women to hide other issues — such as the inability to make themselves physically attractive to the opposite sex or, as this book chronicles, being too picky about men’s ultimately immaterial flaws.

Either way, perhaps Ms. Whelan’s next project should be to start a matchmaking agency for SWANS and the men who love them. If it’ll help men meet the modern equivalent of my mother — a sparkling Ph.D. who at 25 married a man several years older — her work will deserve to bypass the Pulitzer committee and be up for a Nobel.

Ilya Shapiro is a Washington lawyer who writes the “Dispatches from Purple America” column for TCS

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