Earlier this month, I got hung up on a New York magazine article by Hanna Rosin about New York City’s role in education’s “boy crisis”: magnet schools and gifted-talented programs have significantly more female than male students and standardized testing favors girls’ abilities over boys’, which ultimately leads to women out-competing men for spots at top universities. I don’t think we should dismiss this issue; at Jezebel, Anna North examined the reasons why it’s a genuine problem. But there is some unpleasantly chauvinist thinking here too, and even a liberal rag like New York couldn’t help perpetuating it:
But as [author Richard] Whitmire likes to point out, this is a future problem: Men not achieving in school means men not going to college means men with no job prospects means men rejected as suitable marriage prospects by smarty-pants girls.
Smarty-pants girls? How about intelligent, accomplished women? Why does Rosin resort to a tired old put-down that brands smart women uppity and unlikeable?* (To say nothing of her using the term “girls” to refer to adult women.) And why the hell are we still stuck on the retro, much-disproven stereotype that smart women don’t get married?
Never mind that gender inequality in education is a problem simply because, hey, it’s inequality. Or that it’s a problem because the educational system seems to heavily favor one set of cognitive skills over another, which is troubling even if you remove gender from the equation entirely. No, apparently the “future problem” here is that some day some women might not get married!
Nothing, gentle readers, is more alarming than that.
Of course, Whitmire believes the “future problem” is that women would be husbandless. It’s not that men would be wifeless—even though logically that’s what would happen, since Whitmire’s prediction means those less-educated men wouldn’t have enough less-educated women to marry once they were rejected by those of us with degrees.
More importantly, though, is this “future problem” a real problem? Only in a heteronormative, elitist world ruled by traditional gender roles. After all, not all women want to marry. Not all women want to marry men. Not all women need or expect to be supported by their husbands. Not all women believe a college degree is a measure of their partner’s worthiness. Not all men without a college degree are reduced to “no job prospects.”
Besides, the days of women choosing or rejecting partners based strictly on education or income are over. Those criteria made much more sense when marriage was the only way for women to gain financial security. Now that more women than men are in the workforce and universities—with a third of married women outearning their husbands—women are less likely to choose a partner based on his earning power. Future generations will only continue the trend.
Let me also point out the other hoary double standard at work here: in centuries past—hell, decades past—no one was hand-wringing over the fact that men married women with less education than them. No one felt that less education made women less desirable mates, since men out-achieving women was seen as the natural order of things.
But Whitmire seems to believe that’s still the natural order of things—that if women out-achieve men, there will be fewer marriages. His prediction of a “future problem” hinges on the idea that women will reject less-well-educated or lower-earning men because women still want men who will “wear the pants” in marriage. This also presumes that men are just as shallow and will reject woman who outearn or out-achieve them because they insist on being the one to “wear the pants.” Never mind that the data are already disproving this idea. As more women outearn their husbands, men have been much more accepting of it than our culture assumes. I think men are only more likely to accept—or even seek out—high-achieving wives a generation from now, when such relationships have become normalized.
The problem of boys’ educational equality deserves attention and action for many valid reasons. Paternalistic handwringing over whether it will leave a generation of women husbandless is not one of them.
* It may or may not shock you to know that this put-down was frequently lobbed at me as a kid.