Wednesday 22 January 2020

Mary Kenny: Marriage or master's?

It seems the better-educated a woman is, the harder for her to find a mate

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

In the latter years of his life, my husband used to greet breathless announcements of new developments and events with the philosophical words: "'Twas ever thus!" In old age, you see the same themes of life returning as if in a cycle.

I thought of that response when I read that "better- educated women find it more difficult to meet partners than those who are less educated". This report comes from Margaret Fine-Davis' TCD study Changing Gender Roles and Attitudes to Family Formation in Ireland.

This may be hot-off-the-press news, but it is also a trend which has been noted over many decades. Even in the 1900s, it was observed that the better educated a woman was, the less likely she was to marry. One of the reasons why some reactionary-minded parents were reluctant to educate daughters was because educated females might be less likely to find a husband.

Those who like to lambast Ireland's past as dark and backward might note that the education of women was generally fairly progressive in this country. The historian Margaret MacCurtain has examined the archives of convent schools and the eagerness with which Irish mothers pursued the education of their daughters.

But a pattern nevertheless emerged: the more educated a woman became, the less likely she was to marry. My mother's generation sometimes put this down to the idea that men didn't like brilliant women - she suggested women shouldn't wear glasses when in mixed company, as a woman in specs denoted an intellectual, "which intimidates men". (Poor things! Mustn't intimidate them!)

It might seem, superficially, that if better-educated women still find it harder to pair up, it's because men prefer dumb blondes. But it's really because the more educated a woman gets, the choosier she becomes. If a gal has a great career going for herself, money, interests, and more life opportunities, why should she limit herself to a relationship which might prove less than stimulating?

In the late Nuala Fennell's memoir, Political Woman - Nuala was the first Minister for Women's Affairs and in that post abolished the legal definition of illegitimacy - she has a telling passage about her mother's frustrated life, back in the 1940s. Nuala's mother would sometimes gaze out of her kitchen window and say: "If I'd known this was where I'd end up, I'd have gone into a convent."

There was a bitter contrast between her restricted life as a housewife (although the marriage itself, to a senior Garda, was not particularly unhappy) and the free and fulfilling life she had led as a single woman, of "work, theatre and tennis". Many a contemporary, faced with the choice, did enter a convent: single women were stigmatised as 'old maids' (in all cultures - in France, the vieille fille was a creature to be pitied), but nuns escaped that stigma, having a vocation, and often access to quite a lot of power, too.

Women with more options sometimes make that semi-conscious choice not to mate or marry because what is on offer just isn't up to their expectations.

And nowadays, there is the time factor, in several meanings of the word. It can take a long time to finish a higher education. In Germany, the education and training of a teacher can continue until a woman is in her early 30s. Unless she has met a mate by then, the available pool is constantly reducing.

The second time factor has been noted by a colleague: many women now work so hard - and spend so many hours of the day working just keeping up with the frantic demands of modern life - it's not very conducive to meeting and dating.

Some societies have tried to correct this universal pattern with incentives and deterrents. In Singapore, the authoritarian prime minister Lee Kuan Yew tried to provide financial incentives for higher-educated women to marry and produce more babies - he was so alarmed that the clever women were not passing on their genes, while the lesser-educated were. Eugenics always focused on this: Marie Stopes crusaded for birth control so that the lower orders would reduce their feckless reproduction while intelligent (and white) people would breed more.

In her report on gender roles in Ireland, Dr Fine-Davis warns that highly educated women "do not have access to one of the main routes of meeting people in Ireland. The perception that a man can go into a pub by himself and be comfortable whereas a woman cannot… is one that exists despite women's increased equality in the workplace." Well, if a woman cannot figure out how to go into a pub and meet people, her education hasn't much empowered her. Education shouldn't produce wee timid mousies.

No, it's deeper than that. The pattern may even be rooted in nature. The female toad rejects more suitors than she accepts: the male toad who wins her must prove himself to be a superior specimen. It is evident that the more intelligent, refined and educated a woman is, the higher her standards for a mate.

The answer isn't to lower standards but for younger women to be aware that these patterns exist. They can be corrected or forestalled, but first they must be recognised and acknowledged. Life is complex - and all choices have consequences.


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