Barbara Whitehead

(WOMENSENEWS)–For single women past a certain age, Valentine’s Day rolls into town asking that perennial pest of a question, “Is there a man in your life?”

If not, 2003 saw the release of several popular husband-hunting help guides. These include “Mr. Right, Right Now!: How a Smart Woman Can Land Her Dream Man in 6 Weeks” by Elle Magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll, and “Find aHusband After 35, Using What I Learned atHarvard Business School,” by Rachel Greenwald,self-styled dating coach and Harvard M.B.A.

But are today’s single women really so single-mindedly set on nuptials? Or does the modern “bachelor girl” not mind waiting to wed?

Women in the United States are staying single longer. In 1960, the median age at first marriage was 20 years old. Today, the median age at first marriage is 25.

While marriage remains an important goal for women–a federally funded survey of teen trends showed that 82 percent of high school girls say they hope to marry someday and, according to the 2000 Census, 94 percent of women have married at least once by age 65–single women are not that desperate for a left-hand diamond. Rather than feeling pressured to marry as soon as they can, many women today do not mind staying single into their mid-20s and beyond.

More Opportunities for Women

“There’s never been a better time in all of history to be a single woman than right now in the United States,” said Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and author of “Why There Are No Good Men Left: The Romantic Plight of the New Single Woman.”

Whitehead attributes this to a widening vista of educational and professional options for young women. “All the messages from society, from the culture, from their families tell them that they can chose among a variety of things,” Whitehead said.

On college campuses, women continue to outnumber men. Women’s enrollment increased dramatically in the 1990s, from 7.5 million in 1990 to 8.6 million in 2000, expanding from 55 percent of the student body in 1990 to 56 percent in 2000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By 2012, women will make up 57 percent of college enrollment, predicted the center, a federal agency based in Washington, D.C.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the number of women in the work force has nearly doubled since 1950. While women’s wages are only a depressing 76 percent of those of men, women’s median weekly income has still risen steadily over the last 20 years.

The swelling ranks of single women, dubbed “Sex and the City” voters, may swing the 2004 election, and single working women in their 20s and 30s have become advertising’s most coveted audience.

The power and opportunity possible in prolonged singledom has been communicated to today’s teen girls. While most want to marry someday, fewer agreed or mostly agreed “that most people will have fuller and happier lives if they choose legal marriage rather than staying single or just living together.” Female teens who agreed with that proposition declined from 38.9 percent in a 1976-1980 survey to 28.5 in 1996-2000, according to Monitoring the Future, the federally funded longitudinal study of teen attitudes and trends conducted by the University of Michigan.

Further, college-educated, professional women who deferred marriage until well into their 20s or later have the best chances of getting–and staying–hitched. The 2003 report by the National Marriage Project found that the rising age at first marriage was the single most positive factor in the leveling off of divorce rates. The number of divorces for every 1,000 married women spiked to 22.6 in 1980, up from 9.2 in 1960. It has since ebbed to 17.8 in 2001.

Marriages of college-educated couples tend to have more money in them, reducing stress in the home, and older men and women make more mature decisions when picking a mate, said Whitehead.

Single Women Choosey, Not Desperate

“Women in their 20s, and even late 30s, in that range from 28 to 35, they do see marriage as something on the horizon, but not something they’re panicky about,” said Whitehead.

Fifty years ago, only 11.3 percent of women age 25 to 34 had never married. Today, that figure stands at nearly 30 percent.

Whitehead’s book attributes women’s dating frustrations to the lack of evolved courtship rituals that reflect the lifestyles of contemporary singles. She pointed out that modern lifestyles do not provide venues that gather together groups of likeminded singles, the way families and churches might have done in the past and the way high schools and colleges do for men and women who meet their mate earlier in life.

Whitehead found that, despite occasional bouts of depression and desperation over their prolonged single status, most women were not willing to settle for less than their ideal mate.

“We’re finding that young women, rather than trying to snag men into marriage, are holding out and being particular about the men they choose,” said Whitehead, who has two unmarried daughters over 30, both of whom, she reports, are quite happy.

Women’s eNews found similar sentiments from single women from around the country. Take Monique (not her real name), a 30-year-old Maryland woman who declined a diamond from a man she had lived with for nine years because she came to the difficult conclusion that she did not see herself spending the rest of her life with him despite their long history together.

The same goes for Brooke, a 29-year-old waitress and writer from Mississippi. At home, she said, she is considered something of a “freak” for going so long unwed. Shortly after moving to New York City, she broke off her engagement when her betrothed accepted a job in the mid-West. He was a “great catch,” Brooke said, but she was unwilling to forego her own aspirations. While she wants to get married someday, she has no regrets.

Asjylyn Loder is a writer in New York.

For more information:

National Marriage Project:

U.S. Census Bureau–
Marital Status 2000: