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The Mrs. Myth

The Wall Street Journal claims that young professional women are rushing to the altar, but a closer look suggests that the paper has made an all-too-familiar mistake

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On the morning of April 3, though I didn't know it at the time, the little red roses of voice mail were blooming madly on the telephones of 26-year-old women around the country. I arrived at my office that morning to find the message indicator on my own phone already aglow--a vague and early greeting from my friend Ellen, a reporter at the Newark Star-Ledger. "Kiki," she said bemusedly, "Katy Dick is quoted on the front page of today's Wall Street Journal."

Katy, Ellen, and I--and about 900 other women--graduated from Northwestern University in 1991. My only connection to Katy, a disconcertingly enthusiastic girl from La Jolla, was that she had been a sorority sister of my freshman-year roommate. Ellen's link was even more tenuous: she once wrote a story for a student magazine exposing the cold, woman-eating machinery of sorority rush, for which she received anonymous death threats on her answering machine.

Nevertheless, the Journal article saw fit to lump us all together. Under the headline "Young Career Women Seem to Be Marrying Sooner; a Ring as Corporate Asset," it announced: "The women of Northwestern University's Class of 1991 are following the path of their female mentors a decade ago, graduating from an elite school, moving to big cities, embarking on careers.

"But increasingly, they are doing one thing their big sisters often put on hold until their 30s or later: They are getting married. Explains Katie [sic] Dick, who will tie the knot in June following the recent weddings of 15 classmates and friends: 'I turned around one day and said, God, I'm 26, and all my friends are married. What's up with that?' Talk over beers had turned from power careers to power weddings; so, to her surprise, she felt relieved when her boyfriend gave her an engagement ring.

"'It's kind of a '50s mentality,' Ms. Dick says. 'But it's what feels natural, normal, rational for us.'"

And then the article sent up the flare that must have landed it on the front page: "In a shift that augurs major changes in American society and the workplace, college-educated twentysomething women seem to be looking at marriage as another goal that, like finding a good job, best not be postponed....Many such women feel less driven to reach the top of their professions....As the first real postfeminist generation, [these women] witnessed the burnout and self-denial of some career women. Many want no part of it."

The proof? Pop-psych chatter with four of Katy's sorority sisters, a handful of inconsistent--and often irrelevant or misinterpreted--statistics, and a smattering of talking-head testimony.

I called the reporter, Christina Duff, at the Journal's Washington, D.C., bureau to ask why she had chosen this particular gaggle to represent us. She said that she had started out calling law offices in the D.C. area but soon decided it would be better to talk to a circle of friends. I'm no demographer, but this seems an especially dubious tack to take when positing a national trend. "I called a sorority to ensure that the people were from the same group," she said, yet the story doesn't mention that all the women interviewed were either friends or sorority sisters--or that their sorority had a reputation for pursuing "Mrs." degrees. Duff didn't seem to think there was anything wrong with this approach, and several times she proudly referred to her story as "counterintuitive," since it apparently contradicts the latest census (1993), which found that women were getting married later than ever--at an average age of 24.5.

The results of my own poll of 1991 Northwestern alumnae in New York and Chicago suggest quite the opposite: Duff was following her own intuition, and probably little else. Though not scientifically conducted, my poll was reasonably random and included few of my friends. Of the 55 working women and grad students I spoke to, 14 were married, and all of those said fear of neither spinsterism nor burnout had anything to do with their decisions. Several admitted that they had actually felt too young--as did one woman quoted in Duff's story. Most of the unmarried women said they thought the "right" age was between 27 and 35. (For the record, of the four women I interviewed who were in Katy's sorority, two were married and one was engaged.)

Once Duff finished with the Chicken Little proclamations, she didn't seem quite sure how to back up her claims. How old are these brides exactly? One study she cited deals with women 21 to 24, and another with women 25 to 29. Are these really career-oriented women, or simply women who went to college? One young matron, pictured sipping cappuccino, admitted that the last time she stayed out past two was at a Junior League function. If she had a career, Duff didn't deem it important enough to mention. In fact, the only person whose employer was named was a 25-year-old researcher for Gloria Steinem who was also the only interviewee not hitched or husband hunting. Two of the studies Duff chose to prove that marriage rates have climbed "in the past decade" actually compared the 1970s with the 1980s--the decade in which our "older sisters" were supposed to be busy burning out. And the only justification for the headline's assertion that a wedding ring can be a corporate asset was an interview with one "superachiever" who said that a flash of gold on the left hand makes women "less distracting" to male coworkers.

Duff also ignored the specifics of the census, which showed that the proportion of college-educated women 24 to 35 who were married was at a 15-year low. "The statistics don't go to the point of what I was doing, which was looking for professional educated women," she explained to me. (The census doesn't say whether a college-educated woman was working when she got married.) "We would have had to do our own analysis, and that would take months and months." Nevertheless, Duff's story cited two other studies in which a woman with a college education was considered a professional regardless of whether she had a job.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned in my interview with Duff was that she was 26, a 1991 graduate of Indiana University, and she planned to marry in June.

It would be easy to laugh off what many Northwestern alumnae now darkly refer to as "that Wall Street Journal story" as if it were a freak occurrence. But as Susan Faludi, a former Journal reporter herself, argued in 1992's Backlash, it isn't. What's most alarming about Duff's reasoning is that it is rooted in the most resilient bogus female-trend story of all time: that the longer a woman waits to get married, the slimmer her chances become--until at 40 she is more likely to be killed by a terrorist than shot by Cupid's arrow.

The history of that horror story was well documented by Faludi, as was the media's tendency not to question stories that proclaim women are leaving the workplace or that suggest they should. The Journal's parent company, Dow Jones, has been responsible for generating more than a few wildly misguided rounds of trend reporting--including, as recently as 1994, the supposed exodus of young women from the workplace (as it turned out, we were simply going to grad school). That story leapt from the pages of Barron's to those of big newspapers across the nation. But even after such stories have been staked in the heart, what makes the front page is not the debunking, as Faludi points out, but the effects. Case in point: marriage anxiety didn't show up in the polls until after the terrorist statistic showed up in the press.

In her condemnation of this and other widespread untruths about working women, Faludi writes: "The trend story is not always labeled as such, but certain characteristics give it away: an absence of factual evidence or hard numbers; a tendency to cite only three or four women, usually anonymously, to establish the trend; the use of vague qualifiers like 'there is a sense that' or 'more and more'...and the invocation of 'authorities' such as consumer researchers...who often support their assertions by citing other media trend stories."

If Duff has read Faludi's work, she must have misinterpreted that passage as a template rather than a caveat. "Mount Holyoke College...says the percentage of its alumnae who get married within five years of graduation is rising," Duff wrote, without explaining that the rise occurred between the class of 1970 and the class of 1980. Nor does she mention that at the bottom of the source chart, which tallies marital status for the classes of 1950, '60, '70, '80, and '90, is a disclaimer: "Since all members of the class of 1990 who have reported their marital status have been married in the time specified, the percentage would be 100 percent and is therefore not comparable to other classes represented."

Duff went on to say the Holyoke numbers were "in line with a 1993 study by University of Pennsylvania demographer Sam Preston that found that women graduates aged 25 to 29 were marrying faster than in the 1970s," but again left out the fact that the study ended in 1987. Using census numbers, it showed that college-educated women aged 25 to 29 who were getting married at all by 1987 were doing so slightly earlier than in 1972, but that overall fewer of them were taking the plunge.

Preston's study also showed that the highest increase in marriage rates was for college-educated women 30 to 34--which suggests they were delaying, not forgoing, marriage--but Duff ignored this too. Instead she used a gelatinous quote from Ann Clurman of the consumer research firm Yankelovich Partners, spouting backwash from the study that would not die: "The generation before 'did a lot right, but there was a personal cost.'" (In Backlash, on the other hand, Faludi catalogs at least seven major polls, conducted from 1985 to 1990, that found single women to be mentally and physically happier and healthier than their married counterparts.)

As a final attempt to provide hard data, Duff offered this weird and confusing microstatistic: "[In 1994], 47 percent of all first-time brides with diamond engagement rings were in their early to mid-20s, up from 37 percent a decade ago." A 28-year-old unmarried senior account executive at J. Walter Thompson (DeBeers' ad agency) faxed me the study from which this number was culled, as well as the size and breakdown of the 1984 sample. "Early to mid-20s" here, in case you were wondering, means 21 to 24 (and of course those polled weren't asked about their education or employment status). With the help of a calculator, I found that the actual percentage of all brides who fell into that age category had decreased by 9 percent--right in line with the 1993 census. And so, in the end, all this really proves is that women below the average marrying age are more likely to be suckered by a sparkling rock.

"One thing that happens among reporters," observes University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite, a marriage expert who says Duff misquoted her in the story, "is that they look at their friends and say, 'Oh, everybody is....' On one hand, it gives us the earliest indications that we have of trends. On the other, it gives us some things that aren't real. Unfortunately, it's impossible to know what's somebody being insightful and what's just somebody's two weird friends."

Of course the real question here is, how does such an easily dismantled thesis make it onto the front page of one of the nation's most respected newspapers? In June Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers published Slick Spins and Fractured Facts: How Cultural Myths Distort the News. Like Faludi's Backlash, Rivers's book examines the media's tendency to publish unsubstantiated trend pieces about the second sex, and she extends her examination--though in much shorter form than Faludi's--to race and class.

"Because the media tend to be fascinated with the games men play--politics, war, sports--and the reader is generally assumed to be male, you get an overabundance of news of interest to white men and surprisingly little that is of interest to others," Rivers writes. "Also white guys tend to assume white males are individual voices, whereas blacks, women, Hispanics, and others always speak for the entire group. Thus, you may see fifteen columns on Bosnia or Whitewater on op-ed pages--sometimes two on the same subject on the same day--but one piece by an African American journalist on a 'black issue' is assumed to have covered the subject fully. The same goes for women. How often do you see two pieces on day care by two women on the same op-ed page? Editors will say, about a 'women's issue' piece, 'Oh, Ellen Goodman did that already.'" This goes a long way in explaining why rebuttals to myths get a lot less play than the myths themselves.

Rivers goes on to hypothesize that the "objective" white men who run the media only question stories that don't jibe with their cultural purview. A story about women wanting to make sacrifices for men, then, doesn't faze them. But when they come across something about men that doesn't ring right, you can be sure they'll put it under a microscope--or even tweak it to fit their worldview. Rivers cites one particularly amusing instance in which a study of some 4,000 male veterans suggested a link between high testosterone levels and drug use, delinquency, abusiveness, promiscuity, and violence. But the headline in the New York Times said: "Aggression in men: Hormone levels are key. Testosterone is linked to dominance and competitiveness."

Rivers's book certainly hit home--sometimes so hard as to make me wince--but it also struck me as simplistic. Several of the worst falsehoods have been started by female reporters. The reporter who did the story that started the burnout myth was a woman. The reporter who did the story about women leaving the workforce was a woman. Christina Duff is, obviously, a woman. It discredits them to assume that their hands were somehow forced by male editors. Duff told me that the idea for her story came from a female economist at Harvard (though I'm inclined to think her own imminent nuptials had something to do with her willingness to pursue it).

Whether or not we have mostly men to blame, Rivers is right that despite their obsession with objectivity the media have an inherent bias against stories about women. She's certainly not the first to examine it, but what's disturbing is that this knowledge and the resulting protests--Backlash, for example--have so little effect.

In this context it's instructive to note that Duff's story ran not only on the front page but also in a slot that the Journal traditionally reserves for lighter stories, referred to at the paper as the A-hed column. I asked Duff about the general attitude of reporters toward the A-hed. "It's something that is fun to do, when you get a chance to get away from the daily grind," she said. Other sources with various associations with the Journal confirmed her view. It's a bonbon for reporters when they're finished with their "real" work.

So women across the country forfeiting higher career aspirations for marriage (which, for the record, I don't necessarily see as mutually exclusive) is "fun" news? For whom? And why is a story that so enthusiastically flags its own importance to society and the workplace relegated to the news-lite slot? There are two possible answers to that question, and neither is satisfactory. One is because they knew it wouldn't hold up under scrutiny. The other is because it was about women.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Charise Mericle.

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