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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, January 14th, 2003


 

Why There Are No Good Men Left: The Romantic Plight of the New Single Woman

by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead

A review by Caitlin Flanagan

We're forty years this side of The Feminine Mystique, but at this point it has become impossible to figure out which group of American females is in the biggest funk. The binging/purging, self-mutilating early adolescents of Reviving Ophelia? The harried and exhausted working mothers of a thousand earnest tomes on "work/life balance"? Or — as one might conclude after reading Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's new book — the hotshot young career women who can't manage to coax eligible men into the honeymoon suite?

The book gets off to an unpromising start: Whitehead's research centers on her interviews with a group of sixty women, most of whom are white, many of whom attended elite prep schools, half of whom attended highly selective colleges (and the rest "good private colleges and public universities"), a few of whom hold graduate degrees, all of whom are pursuing glamorous careers. As we first meet these hothouse flowers, whining about their romantic blunders "over plates of mushroom ragout in a trendy Washington restaurant," trotting along the most fashionable streets of various American cities in "a brilliant alliance: an aspiring Alpha female hooked up with an Alpha city," it's all we can do not to side with the canny men who managed to steer clear of them. But once Whitehead moves beyond these particular women and discusses the roots of their shared problem, which, she believes, lie in the radical changes in the way girls in this country are reared and educated, the book becomes interesting and even moving. She describes a national "Girl Project" that began to take hold in America in the early seventies. I missed being part of this movement by only a few years, yet the differences between my girlhood and that of the generations that followed are stark. The modern girl has played competitive team sports since her earliest childhood; has attended schools that are highly concerned with girls' academic success, particularly in math and science; has attended college in a time when female students outnumber males; has emerged into a job market in which the traditional male jobs are increasingly held by women.

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead discusses the urgent need to end America's "divorce culture." Whitehead, a social conservative who wrote the controversial book The Divorce Culture, is hugely admiring of these changes, yet she indicates precisely how they have served to disadvantage young career women in the marriage market. Such women no longer find husbands in college, where the pool of available, like-minded men is large, but rather start looking for a permanent mate about ten years after graduation, when there is no formal "courtship system" in place, no pump room or fraternity formal or Dolly Levi to nudge an appropriate match along. Further, at this point they have joined a pool of prospective brides that includes younger women, women less dedicated to their own careers and therefore often more attractive to "career primary" men, and divorced women of all ages. Whitehead accurately points out that many of the sexual liberties that modern women have insisted on in the name of parity are in fact "nicely adapted to men's sexual and romantic self-interests."

Unfortunately, the book sputters out in an inanely optimistic conclusion. Whitehead's remedy for this complicated stew of social change and romantic disappointment? Internet dating! Also for-profit introduction services, better time management, and pre-engagement rings from Shreve, Crump & Low. What Whitehead fails to concede (perhaps because she is the mother of two unmarried daughters in their thirties) is that the situation does not lend itself to such easy fixes. She describes one interviewee who is not "looking for someone to take care of her," another who is consistently "driven by the best projects" at work, a third who insists she will only marry a man who will share equally in child-rearing. We are reminded that "today, the woman is free to make the first phone call, to suggest a first date, and to propose sex." These are perhaps laudable advances, but that such women would imagine that they would also elicit a formal, old-fashioned proposal seems naive. The national Boy Project may have taught America's young men to treat women with new respect in the classroom and the boardroom, and it has certainly prepared them for an unprecedented amount of no-strings nooky; what it has not impelled them to do is to make a bride of every hard-charging woman who suddenly — and fleetingly — wants to play fifties girl with a diamond solitaire and a box full of Tiffany invitations.


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