Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Barnett

(WOMENSENEWS)–As Valentine’s Day nears, there’s a lot of "buzz" about Cupid’s arrow missing its mark.

A recent New York Times front-page article reported that an analysis of Census Bureau figures finds that 51 percent of U.S. women are "living without husbands" rather than opting for marriage.

The story had "legs," big-time. Critics pounced, from both the right and the left. Focus on the Family decreed: "This is simply another brazen attempt by the New York Times to advance an ultraliberal social agenda . . . Manipulating Census Bureau numbers and selectively interviewing anti-marriage academics, the Times created the story it wanted to report: marriage is dying in the U.S."

Others pointed out that the paper really had to stretch to get that 51 percent by including teens 15 and over, older widows and women whose husbands were in jail or away at war. Some, like Gail Beckerman in Columbia Journalism Review Daily, decried the fact that many anecdotes were about well-off professional women and that the story "had a tone of exuberance that spun the numbers as an unambiguously positive piece of progress for women," noting a phenomenon "that might bode well for middle-class white women might be absolutely disastrous for poor black women."

But though the 51 percent figure that got the story on Page 1 seems shaky, we are indeed seeing a historic trend as more and more women remain single and do not rely on a husband for financial support. While class issues deserve attention, there is no denying that we’re seeing a national phenomenon that is unlikely to fade away.

Not a News Flash

But this story is not a news flash. It’s a trend that’s been building for a very long time, thanks to many factors.

First, the "family wage" of the industrial age has collapsed, and men’s wages have been stagnant or declining for more than 20 years. Combine that fact with a high divorce rate, and marriage seems a slimmer reed for women to pin their economic futures on than in the past. Second, well-paying occupations that were once exclusive male turf have been invaded by educated women.

Also, the word "spinster" has gone out of fashion. Once, any woman who wasn’t sporting an engagement ring by the time she reached her mid-20s was probably in a panic. In a Ladies Home Journal article in the 1950s, twenty-something "Marcia Carter" (portrayed anonymously to hide her shame) wrote the magazine about her "hopeless desire" for a husband and a home in the suburbs. "Why do these desires keep torturing me?" she cried out. She attended a course called "How to be marriageable" suggested by LHJ and snared herself a husband.

Today, most women in their 20s would find the idea of remaking themselves for marriage laughable. Single women today don’t see themselves the way Marcia Carter did. In our study of women ages 35 to 55, funded by the National Science Foundation, single women did not feel like failures and did not view themselves differently than other women.

But in one way, they were different. For them, a good job was more important to overall well-being than it was for married women. A single woman in a high-prestige job had a good chance of achieving high well-being, while a single woman in a low-level job had the cards stacked against her.

Choosier About Partners

We are still very much a marrying country; some 61 percent of women above the age of 30 are currently married. But there is no question that women–at least those with good incomes–are getting choosier.

In a multi-country analysis, researchers Alice Eagly and Wendy Wood found that when women have resources of their own, they seek out a different kind of man to marry. Instead of settling for an older "good provider," these women seek men who are caring and supportive, and who can bond with children. If they don’t find such men, many women are saying "no thanks" to marriage. Today, men have to make themselves appealing to attract the most desirable women.

Also, the stigma of single parenthood has eased, for both good and ill. For poor young women, this fact may mean they confront long-term financial struggle, especially since the safety net has been dismantled and child support is rarely forthcoming. But for women who can earn their own way, the lack of a suitable male partner does not mean they can never be mothers, as was usually the case for middle-class women in the past.

Take, for example, Melissa Ludtke, journalist and author of "On Our Own: Unmarried Motherhood in America." In her late 30s, Ludtke was in a relationship with an older man who already had grown children, and didn’t want more. Ludtke didn’t just give up her dreams of being a mother, as many women might have done in the past. She ended the relationship and eventually adopted a baby girl from China. But that came after a lot of soul searching. A clinical social worker Ludtke interviewed said that the term "single mother by choice" was a misnomer: "Their first choice is to be with a partner. When they go ahead and do it without one, most are actually becoming single mothers by second choice."

Single Parenting Not a Drawback

While some bemoan the idea of single parenthood, more and more studies are investigating whether a mother’s marital status impacts her child’s well-being. A multiethnic study at Cornell University found that being a single parent does not appear to have a negative effect on the behavior or educational performance of a mother’s 12- and 13-year-old children.

What mattered most in this study, Cornell researcher Henry Ricciuti says, is a mother’s education and ability level and, to a lesser extent, family income and quality of the home environment. "Overall, we find little or no evidence of systematic negative effects of single parenthood on children, regardless of how long they have lived with a single parent during the previous six years," says Ricciuti, professor emeritus of human development in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell.

Of course, the reason the Times article on single women got so much reaction was because–like many other issues in women’s lives–it became another skirmish in the culture war.

This is a story that can have a bad news frame (poor women have economic problems if they are single) or a good news frame (many women today have more options and do not have to depend on men for their economic future and self-esteem).

The latter is certainly good news for women and ought to be celebrated as such. After all, we’re not talking just about a few rich women, the "Sex and the City" types that Columbia Journalism Review complained about. We’re talking about millions of working women who have decent jobs. The Labor Department reports that about 45 percent of all managerial posts are held by females.

As for poor women, we need to promote not so much marriage, but more and better education and other resources. Since it’s unlikely that the prospects of poor men are going to skyrocket anytime soon, we have to get the message out that earning your own way may be the best chance for a reasonable life.

Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett are authors of "Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children and Our Jobs" (Basic Books 2004.) Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University and Barnett is senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.