Newsweek: Sorry for the spinster scaremongering 20 years ago

In 1986, Newsweek ran a cover story, complete with ominous graph, which claimed, infamously, that single women over 40 were more likely to be killed by a terrorist than ever get married. For those too young to remember it, it’s difficult to convey how widely that article reverberated. I was 12 at the time, and the closest I ever got to a copy of Newsweek was on a trip to the dentist, but I heard adults around me talking about for a long time afterwards. Now Newsweek has issued a mea culpa of sorts: “It turns out that getting married after age 40 wasn't quite as difficult as we once believed.”

Rarely does a magazine story create the sort of firestorm sparked 20 years ago next week when NEWSWEEK reported on new demographic projections suggesting a rising number of women would never find a husband. Across the country, women reacted with anger, anxiety—and skepticism. The story reported that “white, college-educated women born in the mid-1950s who are still single at 30 have only a 20 percent chance of marrying. By the age of 35 the odds drop to 5 percent.” Much of the ire focused on a single, now infamous line: that a single 40-year-old woman is “more likely to be killed by a terrorist” than to ever marry, the odds of which the researchers put at 2.6 percent. The terrorist comparison wasn’t in the study, and it wasn’t actually true (though it apparently didn’t sound as inappropriate then as it does today, post 9/11). Months later, other demographers came out with new estimates suggesting a 40-year-old woman really had a 23 percent chance of marrying. Today, some researchers put the odds at more than 40 percent. Nevertheless, it quickly became entrenched in pop culture.
And stayed there—in spite of much of its content having been long discredited. Feminists (like Susan Faludi, as Amanda points out) called Newsweek on their dubious reporting, but the menacing lesson fixedly lingered. I’ve heard the terrorist reference invoked even in the last few years—sometimes even gleefully by women (in the mold of Caitlin Flanagan) and men who seem to revel in its fatalistic prophecy for strong, independent, well-education women. It was a convenient weapon to scare and scold women, and when it was proven wrong time and again, no one seemed to notice.

In the current article, Newsweek seems to take a rather too-cheerful view of their two-decades-old mistake. “Boy, we sure got that wrong—ha ha!” But it was a big thing to get wrong, and to leave uncorrected for so many years. I heard the “more likely to get killed by a terrorist than married after 40” thing when I was 12; I didn’t find out it was bullshit until my first year of college. I imagine there were women, young and old alike, who never found out in the interim that it just wasn’t bloody true.

I remember, as clear as it were yesterday, standing in a check-out line with my mom when I was maybe 15 and listening to two women in front of us, who were discussing whether one should leave her boyfriend. “I’m so tired of all the hitting and fighting and screaming, but I don’t know if I should leave him. I’m almost 40; I have a better chance of getting killed by a terrorist than getting married..” Living with a terrorist in the hopes he would one day pop the question was apparently more desirable than facing the odds you might be more likely to get popped by one.

Thinking back on that now, I wonder how many women stayed in bad relationships because they’d been told their odds were so long. With society reinforcing the notion that spinsterhood was a fate worse than death, and Newsweek selling them scare stories, it made for a powerful incentive to succumb to the notion that someone bad is still better than no one at all. It’s a dreadful thought to consider how many lives may have been affected by such a pernicious and flatly wrong assertion, infiltrating itself as the conventional wisdom free of the critiques found only in lesser-known journals. Twenty years is a heck of a long time to wait before issuing a retraction.

(More from LeMew.)

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