So what is wrong with the marriage market? Women today are smarter, healthier, more ambitious, interesting, independent, and more confident than any of their predecessors. "The new single woman"—a downright Amazonian creature—"did not appear by accident," Whitehead writes. "She emerged at this moment in history as the result of a self-conscious and highly successful social project whose chief purpose is to prepare young women for adult lives of self-sufficiency, social independence and sexual liberation. Call it the Girl Project." Whitehead, who is at pains to turn what should have been a magazine-length essay into a book, devotes an entire chapter to this "Girl Project," which she believes was inaugurated in 1972 with Title IX legislation.
These women, who now make up about 56 percent of the nation's college graduates (up from 35 percent in 1960), are marrying later in life than their mothers and grandmothers (an average age of 28 for college-educated women rather than the 25 it once was), in part because they have plenty of other options to keep them busy between the ages of 20 and 30. It is not simply that they can work outside the home as, of course, women of previous generations had been able to do, but they can continue their educations for years after college and then have careers that are both intellectually demanding and financially fulfilling.
All this seems to come at a cost, as Whitehead's interviews, statistics, and studies of modern fiction make clear. One interviewee, Christina, "was pretty, smart, and accomplished…. At 30, her job resumé looked a lot more impressive than her romantic resumé." Unfortunately, Whitehead notes, "Time after time, it seemed she'd been promoted in work and pink-slipped in love."
The fact that women are better-educated, more successful, and older by the time they begin the search for a husband is really only one reason for their disappointment. A woman in her mid- 20s today has had a completely different kind of interaction with the opposite sex than women 60 or 70 years ago. According to Whitehead, 90 percent of women born between 1933 and 1942 were either virgins when they first married or had first intercourse with the man they wed. Whitehead draws a useful picture of women today by contrast: "Most likely, today's young single had sex for the first time in her late teens. By the time she leaves college, she's had one or more serious relationships that included sex. She expects to have sex as part of normal dating relationships, and because she is spending more years as a dating single before marriage, she is likely to have more sexual partners than, say, a woman who marries in her early 20's."
Which means that women in their late 20s have really been through the ringer, since, as Whitehead notes, "women are still more likely than men to invest sexual partnerships with emotional 'meaning' and to confuse sex with genuine affection and even the promise of a future together." However, to imply that men today are simply more reluctant to marry because they can get sex outside of marriage underestimates men and the deal they are currently getting. Which brings us to the one part of this book worth reading—the chapter called "Should we live together?" As Whitehead succinctly notes, cohabitation means that a man "can get the benefits of a wife without shouldering the reciprocal obligations of a husband." And best of all, "Unlike other forms of live-in help…she is sexually available and works for free."
Of course, "A romantic relationship between a man and woman who live at separate addresses can also go sour. What is unique to the practice of cohabitation-as-courtship, however, is that it has special characteristics that make it hard for a woman to know or admit to herself that it is going sour." Whitehead's assessment of the situation created by what she calls "cohabitation-as-courtship" is spot on and worth reading for any woman considering living with her boyfriend as the next step toward a permanent relationship, and for any man who thinks he is not leading on his girlfriend by moving in with her.
Unfortunately, by the end of her book, it seems that Whitehead has ignored her own research. Repeatedly nixing the simple solution of advising women to refrain from moving in with a man until they are married or engaged, Whitehead suggests imbuing cohabitation with greater significance. For instance, "there might be a formal religious recognition of a cohabiting couple's intention to enter into a process of marriage preparation. There might be some kind of public or family announcement of the union as a pre-engagement engagement. Special workshops and courses, both secular and religious, might be designed for cohabiting couples who are thinking about marriage."
But the romantic inertia that results from cohabitation and the years that marriage-minded women waste in relationships that are not progressing toward marriage is mind-boggling. Instead of pushing more tedious academic inquiry, Whitehead could use a dose of common sense. As it turns out: there are good men left, but women are too busy cooking, cleaning, providing for, not to mention having sex with, the bad ones.