every rose has its thorn

I know yesterday was Valentine’s Day, so this post might seem a bit late. But it’s Susan B. Anthony Day, which is as good a day as any to turn to the thorny relationship between women, love, and education.

This past weekend, Stephanie Coontz wrote an encouraging opinion piece in the NY Times that asserts that “for a woman seeking a satisfying relationship as well as a secure economic future, there has never been a better time to be or become highly educated.” She cites the decline in the “success” penalty for educated women, asserting that men are more interested in women who are intelligent and educated than in the past.* Marriage rates are similar, and divorce rates lower for educated women. In fact, “by age 30, and especially at ages 35 and 40, college-educated women are significantly more likely to be married than any other group.” As if this wasn’t enough, Coontz cites other benefits for educated women: better physical and mental health, satisfying relationships, less housework, and steamier sex. Like usual, she makes a great (and entertaining) argument and her sources – including a number of sociologists – are sound. However, I’d like to suggest that things aren’t as rosy as they seem, particularly for women with (or pursuing) a Ph.D.

For one, research by Mary Ann Mason and colleagues at Berkeley suggests that women don’t use their degrees in the same way that men do, particularly if they’re married. Married women are more likely to work as adjuncts or other non-tenure track faculty after finishing, and those who do go into tenure-track positions are under-represented at research schools. While this isn’t necessarily a problem, it does mean that they’re paid less, have less job security, and are in less prestigious positions. This hurts the women themselves by putting them in more precarious situations should they get divorced and hurts female students as they’re in graduate programs with a dearth of women faculty to serve as mentors and role models. While the data make it impossible to know for sure, Mason believes that women are making choices based on family, including work conditions and location, that lead them to this second-tier of academia. This isn’t just about children either. Young children and marriage have strong, separate effects. In other words, while women are becoming more educated and forming families with partners who value their intellect and academic achievement, when push comes to shove, married women – especially those with children – are more likely to forgo even a taste of the tenure track.**

Another problem is a potentially overlooked curvilinear effect of education. While overall it might seem like education is good for marriage and divorce rates, an old Social Problems article found that this was only true until women earned a masters-level degree. Women with more than six years of college education were an exception to the inverse relationship between education and divorce. Divorce was most common for these women during graduate school, not before. Although preliminary, analyses that Ellen Childs and I have done using the GSS, NLSY ,and NSFH seem to suggest that this trend continues today. Controversial research in the seventies found that divorce wasn’t actually a negative for female graduate students, as they became more productive and involved in school. Men who divorced in graduate school, on the other hand, suffered more deleterious consequences. Regardless of whether divorce is a positive or negative for an individual, these findings suggest that women’s higher education can be tough on marriages.

Women have come a long way, to be sure. However, with every cited piece above (whether from 1973 or 2009) positing work and family conflict and responsibilities as a driving force in the decisions graduate students and faculty make, these caveats to Coontz’s rosy view suggest that gendered expectations about family and career haven’t changed quite as quickly as marriage rates among educated women. Combining marriage with graduate education may have certain costs – whether professional or personal – for women still today.


* This is where she shares this gem: “One man who taught at a women’s college in the 1950s told me his colleagues used to joke that once they knew a woman had earned a Ph.D., they didn’t even need to ask what she had specialized in: clearly, it was in ‘Putting Hubby Down.'”

** I considered such a move myself after graduate school and so completely understand people who make this decision whether based on location, partner’s preferences and opportunities, insecurities, or all of the above. As a divorced mother, though, I decided I needed the “job security” of a tenure track position and to see how my relationship played out post-graduate school before making any potentially costly career moves.

7 thoughts on “every rose has its thorn”

  1. Part of what is going on, I think, is that marriage & family life is getting a lot worse for less-educated women with single-parenting escalating among the least educated, so more educated women are looking like they are dong better by comparison, even at the high end.


  2. Great post. On the curvilinear education effect, that Social Problems article is 30 years old. Current ACS data don’t show that pattern for divorce, at least when I break out “MA plus” from the BA-complete folks. It’s just more education, lower odds of divorce at all levels. Still, PhDs are their own story I’m sure. Worth a closer look.


    1. Thanks. I do think that you have too look at the PhDs themselves because, consistent with both Feldman and Houseknecht’s theses, it’s that educated women who enter grad school either drop out and stay married (which could show up at 6+ years) or persevere and get divorced. Men’s patterns are linear.

      Because, like Coontz says, marriages for highly educated women can happen post-grad school (and these could be second marriages), the timing of the divorces are also important. That’s why Ellen and I have been trying to use some longitudinal data to get at the trends. The Ns are so small, though, and the questions aren’t perfect for determining timing, so it’s difficult. I can see why Houseknecht et al. collected their own data!

      Do you have any ideas about a better data set to use?


  3. The ACS now has detailed education (including a currently-in-school indicator), number of marriages, year of last marriage, and marital events in the last year (e.g., divorce). Maybe that would be good – big N…


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