Wednesday, May 19, 2010


I feel as though there's a post to be written, between on the one hand Rita's ongoing discussion of academic frauds ('I swear I was valedictorian of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton!') and the broader ongoing discussion of how tough it is out there for high-achieving women, how they're forced to deny their academic successes just to get a date ('What's a Harvard?').

I'm not sure what that post should be. ('Status is Everything Except When It's Not?') I'm reminded of Simone de Beauvoir's focus, in The Second Sex, on the ways discrimination against women have affected the sort of women who but for their gender would be Sartre. As in, how many women are at the very-very tip-top of the most-impressive-sounding programs at universities whose names are best referred to euphemiso-geographically? Is it unfair that Kagan 'can't get a date' (which I don't buy), whereas a male Kagan would have a harem of eager interns (which I do)? If that's true, then fine, unfair. But how many women are cursed in this way? You'd need to be a woman whose real CV mirrored the fake one Rita links to for this to be any kind of issue. If you blur the question, you can reach something approximating Major Issue territory - Emily Yoffe, for instance, conflates achievement, intelligence, and income, when in life these only partially overlap. Lots of wives may outperform their husbands in one or two but not all of these, so if the husband for whatever reason needs to see himself as higher-status than the wife, he just has to focus elsewhere. To stick with examples I can understand: She studies poetry at Yale? He can study math at Obscure State U. She studies math at Obscure? In that case he can study poetry at Yale. And so forth.


Jeff said...

I feel like the dating "troubles" of one person (Ms Kagan) and a comment in an interview years ago by a HBS graduate has turned into a General Theory of Men Not Wanting High-Status Women.

But let's assume that yes high-status women have a tough time in the dating game. What's the cause? A simple explanation might be the Roissy-an explanation and pin all this on the women themselves.

What do women want? High-status men. Higher than themselves. The population is small if you are yourself high-status.

What do men want? Women as young and good-looking as possible. Easy to find if you're a high status man.

As far as a man *needing* to see himself as higher-status than his wife, the Roissy-an explanation would turn this around; it's the woman with the deep need to be in a relationship with a man of higher status than herself, and it is she who will start to go adrift if the status is the wrong way around. (Necessitating "relationship game" on the part of the man to keep the male-on-top status hierarchy intact).

Miss Self-Important said...

I'm not sure there's any connection at all except that about half the frauds in my file are female--gender equality in con-artistry!

I'm unconvinced like you that any significant number of very high-achieving men want to marry low-achieving women, thereby shutting their female achievement peers out of the marriage market.
In most PhD programs (except maybe English and Art History--those lucky women get to date Adam Wheeler) and I guess top of the law school classes, men outnumber women, and those men are probably too busy on their own careers to spend a lot of time haunting working class neighborhoods to pick up a low-status woman. They look at their immediate surroundings, and find the high-achieving women in their own milieus. Also, if the NYT wedding announcements are evidence of anything, the goal of marriage seems to be for each partner to bring as many prestigious credentials to the union as possible.

If, as you claim, Kagan is among such a small number of brilliant women that you could count them individually, then each of those women's choices will have been made for individual reasons which we probably can't generalize very effectively as Major Social Phenomena. If Kagan is not a lesbian, she could still be unmarried for about a million different reasons. Apparently, Benjamin Cardozo lived his whole life with his sister because he loved her so much. Also an unusual life decision, but too individual to attribute to Major Social Phenomena.

I'm sure if she were a partner at a big firm and if/when she's a SC justice, she'll also have a harem of interns who will thoroughly worship her. They may not marry her b/c that would be professionally inappropriate and she's a lot older than them, whereas if she were a man, the second obstacle would be less of an issue. But younger men marrying older women is a generally rarer event that has nothing to do with her achievements.

Flavia said...

I too have a hard time believing that Kagan (or high achieving women as a class) can't get a date. In my totally anecdotal experience, the only women who routinely encounter men who are "intimidated" or "threatened" by them are dating within the wrong pools (and/or are themselves convinced that other people are or should be intimated by them--cough cough Maureen Dowd cough).

I do think that high-achieving women have pressures placed on their relationships and family lives that many men do not. They're more likely to be partnered with their peers, which means they're more likely to be in long-distance relationships, have a harder time balancing home life, having kids, etc.

As MSI says, peer marriages are increasingly the norm, and carry their own kind of status for men, too. . . but so far among my age group when push comes to shove it's nearly always the woman who sidetracks or gives up her career. (And yeah, those are individual choices, but they reflect a larger cultural reality.) One of the undergrads that I taught at my grad institution actually said that his ideal woman would be someone he'd meet in law school, since he wanted someone who was smart and ambitious. . . but who'd be ready to give up her job to stay at home with the kids, when the time came.

Still. None of that is the same thing as not being able to get a date because, boo hoo, the menz are so intimidated by my big brain.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Do women seek out status and men prettiness? I don't think Roissy gets the credit here - this is what's known as the obvious. What's often ignored is the extent to which men are impressed by female achievement (or turned off by lack thereof) and women drawn to men on the basis of looks. But even if we were to assume that the stereotypes held true, what I was getting at is that status is relative and largely a product of framing. If a woman feels she needs a higher-status man, all she needs is a guy with one identifiable trait that makes him 'the man' in the relationship. It can be something as mundane as age, or that he scored higher or the SAT, or...


"about half the frauds in my file are female--gender equality in con-artistry!"

I noticed this! Which suggests that women are not all ducking their heads whenever their prestigious accomplishments come up in conversation.

I don't believe there's any nefarious force preventing very smart women from finding mates. As you said, like goes with like for all the usual reasons - you meet who you meet in school, you want someone you'll be comfortable with, and so on. (The law student could be meeting the barista or the dept admin - roaming low-income neighborhoods isn't the only possibility - but what matters is who's at the events where there's alcohol, and that would be fellow students.) The discussion re: Kagan seems to be simultaneously about all women who manage to get out of bed in the morning with goals beyond a pedicure and about this teeny-tiny set who might genuinely have problems finding intellectual equals of either sex. I happen to agree with you that if someone from that set is single, the reasons are too particular to assess, but even if there were some systematic reason for why women of Kagan-Beauvoir-level brilliance were doomed never to wed, I fail to see how this affects enough women to get classified as a Feminist Issue.

As for using the NYT wedding pages as an assessment of what marriage means... I have a sense of what they're selecting for, but not of how representative that is of anything greater. The paper could well be trying to make a feminist point by excluding many of the banker-kindergarten-teacher couples one used to find so often. (Or maybe it's just about picking life's winners - a recent one featured a woman with every possible academic accomplishment and a mother who was Miss America - a title the bride looked like she could easily hold as well.)


Indeed - the "I intimidate men with my brilliance" excuse is typically a way to put a positive spin on an inability to find (or lack of desire to find) a mate. It's interesting what you say about careers and who opts for what. I'm not at the point yet where many of my peers are married, let alone having kids, but my sense from those further along is... mixed. On the one hand, women I know with babies and husbands tend to go back to work. On the other, many female academic superstars I can think of have neither.

Miss Self-Important said...

I think Flavia is right that the Major Social Phenomenon is what takes place after the pairing off of two high-prestige people--who compromises and how. But I kind of hope that this data will stay personal as long as possible so that people will work it out themselves instead of relying on statistics to guide them.

At the levels of Beauvoir-brilliance, everyone's life is pretty unique. If we put all the super brilliant people into a data set, we might find that rates of unmarriage/serial disaster marriage/childlessness/children so messed up that childlessness might've been a better option/etc are pretty equal for both sexes. But I also don't think Kagan is really that brilliant.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I don't think there's anything wrong with one person working less once there are kids and that person happening to be the wife. The problem comes from the expectation within the couple that the partner who compromises has to be the woman, and on the other hand, from employers that a woman without a family will take a job more seriously.

No, Kagan probably isn't in the Beauvoir-Arendt stratosphere, but she's closer to that, I think, than to the generic "professional, educated woman" category that allegedly scares off the XY-chromosomes.