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I'm not the only fabulous single woman who wants to get married. Of my girlfriends, most of them are single, and the majority of those would rather be married, to the right man, of course. My co-worker, Christa, just turned 30. She's talented and pretty and sharp as a tack. Sue is 45. An accomplished journalist, she has traveled the world and just authored a book with a major publishing house. She's smart and funny and kind. Melissa, 37, works as a sales manager for a tech company. She's artistic, dresses to kill and just bought her second house. Sarah, 37, runs a nonprofit organization, is an accomplished musician and has a rockin' bod. Michelle is a single mom who recently returned to school to get her teaching credential. She's gorgeous, smart, athletic and 40. All of these women are bright, educated, attractive, successful, interesting -- and grudgingly single.
Not to leave out the men. Certainly there are plenty of single guys who would like to be married as well. My friend Kevin, 33, wants to find a mate as much as any of my girlfriends. But biologically speaking, let's face it: men have a few more decades of wiggle room than women do. Why can't some of us find suitable mates?
A New Dating Order
I feel guilty about my nuptial ambitions. As a woman living out the feminist ideal, I feel like I should be "above" such anachronisms as marriage and family. As much as feminism taught us to take control of our own lives, it fell woefully silent on the topic of marriage as a legitimate life goal, so it's difficult to reconcile one's feminist-self with one's wannabe wife-self.
Adding to that, pop culture often depicts the marriage-minded woman as desperate and pathetic. As far back as the 70s, she was portrayed by the pudgy, clownish Rhoda on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Today she's represented by the obsessive and insecure Monica on Friends, the emotionally needy Charlotte on Sex and the City, and the confused, hallucinatory Ally McBeal.
So, in a post-feminist world, I never thought that a bunch of single women whining about their lack of marital status would be of any scientific interest to anyone save Dr. Laura or the folks at Focus on the Family.
So imagine my shock when I picked up the book Why There Are No Good Men Left: The Romantic Plight of the New Single Woman, by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. In 195 pages, Whitehead, a Ph.D. in American social history, managed to unravel my life story. The title of her book is tongue in cheek. Far from being a male-bashing fest, the book sketches a dramatic shift in the American courtship structure over the course of a single generation. For the first time in centuries, the romantic rules are changing.
Whitehead theorizes that while our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers came of age in the "marriage" courtship system, my Gen X and young Baby Boomer friends and I reached adulthood at the dawn of the "relationships" courtship system (or, more to the point, non-system), which may or may not lead to marriage. The dating rules have changed or disappeared altogether, leaving men and women lost in a mire of romantic ambiguity.
Whitehead, 58, married when she was 21 and had two daughters in her mid-20s. The idea for the book hit her as she observed the romantic lives of her daughters, now 34 and 35, and both single. When Whitehead would query her educated, successful daughters about their marital ambitions, the usual reaction was a roll of the eyes and an "Oh, mother!"
"They have lots of friends and satisfying work, and they've had a variety of boyfriends over the years, and I realized that their lives were very different from mine," Whitehead says in recent interview. "This is a social phenomenon, it's generational, and it's really so recent. So I decided to pin some numbers on what I thought was a pretty significant change in women's lives."
Whitehead spent three years researching and writing the book, in which she interviews 60 single women, age 22 to 40, and researches the statistical trends of courtship and marriage. What she discovers is a shift in young women's goals away from marriage and toward career and self-sufficiency. No big shock -- we've known that for years. That change started in the late 60s, with the emergence of the Second Wave of feminism and when women starting going to college in droves. What's new about Whitehead's research is, first of all, the academic acknowledgement that, in spite of women's newfound freedoms, some of us still want to get married; and secondly, that courtship is morphing from one system to another, and women like me find themselves lost in the middle of a major social upheaval.