"We were wrong!"
You almost never see these words on the cover of a major magazine, but on June 5, Newsweek said just that.
The magazine headlined, in boxcar type, "20 years ago, Newsweek predicted that a single, 40-year-old woman had a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than getting married."
Over a photograph of a bride and groom, the magazine admitted its 1986 story had been incorrect and titled its new cover piece "Rethinking the Marriage Crunch."
Newsweek deserves a bouquet for its story. Half the flowers should be roses, for admitting in such a public way that the terrorist story turned out to be utterly bogus. The other half should be stinkweed, because a lot of people knew full well at the time that the notion was laughable. Why did the correction take so long?
The "killed by a terrorist" story proved irresistible to the US media, and it's a classic case of how flawed information gets repeated so often it turns into popular gospel. How did this all come about?
In 1985, three Harvard-Yale researchers (Neil Bennett, David Bloom and Patricia Craig) published a "Marriage Patterns in the United States" study. Not, on its face, a real headline grabber. But embedded in the study was what appeared to be very bad news about women, a commodity that always sells like hot cakes.
"Are These Women Old Maids?" screeched People magazine at the time, in a headline over pictures of Diane Sawyer, Sharon Gless, Donna Mills and Linda Ronstadt. People warned, "Most single women over 35 can forget about marriage." (While Newsweek used 40 as the age of doom, most other publications set it at 35.)
Dire Predictions Go To Hollywood
Before long, there was hardly a female in the nation who hadn't heard the dire predictions about women who delay marriage. One of director/screenwriter Nora Ephron's single women in her 1993 Sleepless in Seattle cited the terrorist "fact."
But even at the time, the researchers said their work was being wildly misinterpreted.
Most women, they noted, tended to marry guys two or three years older. But during the baby boom era, each year brought an increasing number of babies; so the baby crop born in 1955 was larger than that of l953, for example. So a woman born in 1955 looking for a 1953 husband was fishing in waters that contained fewer men.
But the man shortage, as Katha Pollitt pointed out in The Nation in September of 1986, was "really an older man shortage, and a temporary one at that."
The dire scenario for single women was exactly this: The 35-year-old woman who insisted that she would marry only a man two years her senior could have faced a shortage.
Viewed in this limited statistical prism, the white, college-educated woman's likelihood of marrying was only 1 in 20.
But of course, that number was meaningless. Why should it have been assumed that such a woman would have scorned a man her own age? Or a 34-year-old man. Or a 28-year-old man?
As it turned out, there were no dire consequences for women who chose to marry when they were in their 30s or 40s. There was no basis at all for the massive coverage the national media gave to the story.
"Another Crack of the Backlash"
The study on which Newsweek based its cover article bore little relation to how men and women behave in real life and was hyped into a phony "trend." Pollitt hit the nail on the head when she said that the "media coverage of the study, if not the study itself, is just another crack of the backlash. Women can't have it all, women must choose. A career or a husband."
One reason an obscure demographic study acquired such long legs as a news story, Newsweek admits, is that the magazine came up with the catchy "killed by a terrorist" line, which was not in the academic study.
The line was first written as a joke in a memo from correspondent Pamela Abramson.
"It's true; I am responsible for the single most irresponsible line in the history of journalism, all meant in jest," Abramson recently told Newsweek.
Newsweek writer Eloise Salholz inserted the clever line into the story, which passed muster by editors, who thought readers would take it as hyperbole. They didn't. As Newsweek admits, "Most readers missed the joke."
All those mid-1980s gloom-and-doom pieces (New York magazine headlined one such story "Single Forever?") became building blocks of a monumental cultural commitment to the idea that ambition makes women miserable.
Over the past two decades, we have seen a gush of books, magazine cover articles, television shows and newspaper stories running with the same idea.
Warnings Against Ambition
Best-selling author Michael Gurian, in the 2002 book The Wonder of Girls: Understanding the Hidden Nature of Our Daughters, cautioned parents not to encourage their daughters to be too ambitious, lest they wind up unhappy.
The message was pounded continually, despite a mountain of evidence from many studies that being engaged in challenging jobs was very good for women's mental health.
In the 1986 best-seller Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind, Mary Belenky and her coauthors called women "spiritual, relational, inclusive and credulous." They wrote, "Striving for leadership violates a woman's essential feminine nature."
But women in the business world -- where research consistently finds female managers as motivated as male managers -- are debunking all this. One study of nearly 2,000 managers found that the women exhibited a "higher-achieving motivational profile" than their male counterparts.
The ambition-equals-misery doctrine, however, has dug a deep foothold in the media and the culture.
Last year -- nearly 20 years after the original Newsweek piece -- the media was busy churning out the same old story. Headlines then announced that men would not marry smart women. The stories, however, were based on studies conducted on women born in 1921, who are now all in their 80s. The research had little relevance to today's women.
What really did happen to those baby boom women who let the magic age of 40 pass without wedded bliss? Instead of being forever single, most in fact got married. Or will do so. A 2004 study by Princeton sociologists Joshua Goldstein and Catherine Kenny predicts that 90 percent of baby boomer women will eventually wind up married.
Sociologist Valerie Oppenheimer of the University of California, Berkeley, reports that today, men are choosing as mates women who have completed their education. The more education a woman has, the more likely she is to marry. Increasingly, women are marrying younger men, so old trends are crumbling.
So, has the myth of the miserable 30-plus working woman become a thing of the past? Don't count on it. Wait a while, and a new batch of headlines will appear, with the old doom-and-gloom mantra front and center.
The media, including its female members, just can't seem to let it go.
Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University and coauthor, with Rosalind C. Barnett of Brandeis University, of Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children and Our Jobs. This story was originally published on www.womensenews.org.