Stephanie Coontz: The Romantic Life of Brainiacs

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Stephanie Coontz, a historian at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families, wrote Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage. ]

Pity the overschooled old maid and the lonely career woman. Highly educated or high-achieving women are less likely to marry and have children than other women. If they do marry, they are more likely to divorce. Even if they don't divorce, their marriages will be less happy. And, oh, yes, they'll be sexually frustrated, too.
These maxims, widely accepted for at least two centuries, are bad news for a state so focused on brainy pursuits. Thirty-five percent of Massachusetts women 25 and older have a bachelor's degree or more, a level of educational attainment almost 10 points higher than the national average. So perhaps it follows that 28 percent of women in the state have never been married. Massachusetts's proportion of never-married females is the third highest in the nation, topped only by the District of Columbia and the state of New York. But are these women really educating themselves out of the marriage market? If a woman reads Proust or computes calculus, is she unable to attract a mate?

Conventional wisdom says the answer to both questions is yes. But a close look at the historical transformation of marriage in America suggests that educated women now have a surprising advantage when it comes to matrimony.

WHEN I WAS IN THE FIFTH GRADE IN 1954, my teacher pulled me aside after a class party to give me some friendly advice. "Stephanie," he said, "the boys would like you more if you didn't use such big words." I still remember his exact words, because they came as such a shock. Until that moment, it had never occurred to me that the boys might not like me. My teacher's advice didn't stop me from using big words or aspiring to academic success. I entered the citywide spelling bee that spring and was more upset by coming in second than I had been by my teacher's warning. But while my disappointment at losing the spelling bee quickly faded, the teacher's words stuck in my head. For the next 20 years, I believed that the things I most liked to do and most wanted to be made me less attractive to men.

I certainly wasn't the first girl to grow up thinking that aspiring to higher education or a fulfilling career meant jeopardizing her chance of marriage, motherhood, and personal happiness. As early as 1778, according to Harvard University historian Nancy F. Cott, author of the 2000 book Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation, Abigail Adams complained to her husband, John, about the fashion of ridiculing female learning. In 1838, a prominent marriage adviser labeled intellectual women "mental hermaphrodites," less capable of loving a man or bearing a child than a "true" woman. In 1873, Dr. Edward H. Clarke, a prominent professor at Harvard Medical School, noted that the rigors of higher education diverted blood from a woman's uterus to her brain, making her irritable and infertile. Women who pursued careers, he warned, had little chance of marrying and even less chance of bearing a healthy child. Early in the next century, another doctor asserted that when women saw themselves as competent in school or at work, they acquired a "self-assertive, independent character, which renders it impossible to love, honor, and obey." In consequence, he complained, middle- and upper-class males were forced to remain single or dip into the lower classes to find an "uneducated wife" who would not scorn to perform the duties of her sex....

THE MYTH OF THE BITTER, sexually unsatisfied female college graduate has never been true. Surveys from the 1890s to the present reveal that college-educated women have always been at least as satisfied with their emotional and sexual lives as their less-educated counterparts. But until recently, it was true that women who completed the highest levels of education or landed high-status, high-paying jobs were less likely than other women to marry and have children. They were often perfectly happy with their choices, but the fact remains that many women did have to choose between family life and achievement in the public sphere.

One reason for this was that men of the past were more interested in marrying someone who would cook or clean for them than in an intellectual equal. ...

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