February 04, 2008

Education and The Single Woman

MY MOTHER IS a cost accountant. Only the third woman in all of India to get a certificate of practice when she received one, and the first in the Western India zone. She gave her last costing exam while working full time at the age of 28 and then finally deigned to marry my father, her boyfriend of nine years, who had been waiting patiently for her to complete her desired education. At the age of 24, I was done with two Master’s degrees and accepted to a Ph.D. program scheduled to start a few months after my 25th birthday. Thrilled to gain admission to the Social Science program of the #1 School of Public Administration in the United States, I called home to share the news. Happiness and pride flowed through the phone wires. Followed closely by this statement: But if you study so much, you won’t find a boy to get married to.

Maybe I am exceptionally jaded now, and five years later, not much surprises me anymore. But back then, that one line stunned me. Rendered me unable to speak (and anybody who knows me knows what a feat that is!) and hurt me infinitely more than any departmental letter of regret would have. I love my mother. Immensely. So this is not a parent-bashing post. But to come from my mother, my educated, learned, aware and fiercely independent female parent who wanted to start med school after becoming an accountant (and was screamed down by both my grandmothers) has been a lesson hard to forget. A lesson in how deeply ingrained certain societal and biological responsibilities are, no matter how much we believe we are beyond them. A lesson that taught me that no matter what my education or career accomplishments, at the end of the day, I’d still be judged a failure or success based on my marital status. A lesson that taught me that for all our fabulous talk about progressive thinking, deep down we still believe that a woman must only marry, at best, her intellectual/academic equal, or better still, someone a couple of notches above her.

I kid you not. I have lost count of the number of times I have been cautioned that men’s fragile egos cannot completely embrace a woman if her independent mind tags along. That I should reserve opinion on controversial issues because it’s all very well to be articulate, but men get threatened. The bottom line being: no man wants a woman who doesn’t make him feel like Rambo. If it means trashing that Ph.D., so be it. And a woman isn’t supposed to resent it either. Gracious acquiescence, my darlings, is the phrase. Of course, now that I’ve gone and ranted to the world and her husband about it, I can already see that last glimmer of testosterone receding into the distance.

Sigh. And then they sing no woman no cry.

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23 comments to Education and The Single Woman

  • You know, I can’t help thinking that a lot of this stuff is just superstition. I can think of plenty of well-educated, immensely successful women of my acquaintance who are happily married (admittedly to men who are their intellectual / academic equals, but where’s the harm in that). And the majority of my male friends (who are, admittedly not a representative sample), far from being threatened by female accomplishment, would have qualms about being in a relationship with someone who wasn’t their intellectual / academic equal or wasn’t successful in some way. To quote just one example, I remember having a conversation not so long ago with a male acquaintance of mine who was trying to decide whether he wanted to date a woman he’d met. He said he really liked her, but he was conflicted because she “didn’t even have a masters” and he wasn’t sure it would work out.

    I’m not disputing that conventional wisdom has it that being too educated / successful can harm a woman’s chances of being in a successful relationship (and I’m not even going to start on why a relationship is necessarily worth having, and at what cost) – I’m just not sure that the empirical evidence supports that assertion. Okay, so maybe there’s a set of insecure men who feel emasculated by a woman’s success. Why would you want to be with someone like that anyway? And maybe a bunch of people who don’t understand what you do, can’t imagine that there might be things worth doing in the world beyond ‘settling down’ (one of my least favorite phrases in the world) and making babies, and are (probably) secretly envious of your success will try to scare you with (literally) old wives tales about how getting an education will make you ‘unmarriageable’. Why would you listen to them?

    Frankly, the whole thing sounds like something out of the plot of a Jane Austen novel. Nobody will marry Emma because who would agree to move into her house and put up with Mr. Wodehouse? Just another case of conventional wisdom getting it wrong.

  • I kind of agree wtih Falstaff here. The kind of man who would be intimidated by a woman having qualifications or a mind of her own would, obviously, be not worth marrying. Also – I am outspoken and have very feminist opinions, and I got married at 25!

  • There might be some truth to that – one of the fears was that a “very-educated” girl would need to find someone “more-educated” than her – to maintain the lovely relationship of subservience – and that to buy a groom who was more educated than usual would require a bigger monetary loss.

    That said, I do know that within my community, there is immense pressure on women to study engineering – because it makes them good “roaming wives”. They can get a job just about anywhere.

  • @Falstaff: Oh I’m not sure there’s any supporting empirical evidence either. And yes, I certainly wouldn’t want to be with a person who was threatened by me. You’ve spelled it out to clearly and I’m so in agreement that I might have to transport you from Philly to present my case to my mother. 😉

    @Unmana: Cheers to that. 🙂

    @Nehavish: Wow. A roaming wife, huh? That takes me right back to my school days, when the Vice Principal announced that the school librarian was leaving because “like a good wife, she must follow her husband.” At 12, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the feeling was, but I did feel the bile rising.

  • Addendum: Okay, so I was relieved to read that other folks think the way I’ve always believed, and so ended up not saying what I meant to: I still believe that we might be a minority when it comes to challenging conventional wisdom. And sure, I can avoid men who feel threatened like I would the plague, but that wouldn’t change common perceptions in the big, bad world out there. I’m wondering if there’s anything we can do to shake those up. Any thoughts?

  • I read ur post and then falstaff’s comment as well. And there is truth in both!

    We must remember that people like “us”, are still, not representative of people in India. There are 1000s of households where girls’ career choices are determined by other people for them keeping in mind how comfortably they could slip in to the role of the “wife”, or “DIL”, which are still considered more important roles, than say, of an employee or professional.

    yes things are changing. yes, there are a lot of men now who not only “want” wifes who are equal, but who also revel in their partner’s success and support them.

    Butthen u’ll see a cousin/friend’s wedding being discussed….and u’ll see the same age old notions, roll your eyes and wonder if it’s for real. But sadly, it mostly is.

  • I wrote something on a similar vein though it was more a venting session and very colloquial. It can be found at http://sachini-perera.blogspot.com/2008/02/aaaarrrggghhh-women.html

  • If getting a PhD and increased qualifications makes a man jumpy…he is not worth being with – I agree! Many women and many worlds have played the game of walking a few steps behind and not contesting opinions and thoughts and continue to do so. Do not join them!
    The occasional male has started a passing comment with the words ‘just because you have a PhD…’ and gone onto to say something ridiculously silly..IGNORE them! Building your life and choosing to learn depending on what would change around you may not be a good idea..on the whole!

  • @Chandni: But that’s exactly my point: how can I not be “representative” when socio-educational restrictions are imposed on me too toward the same end goal? I am as much like “them” as “they” are!

    @Sach: I visited. Thanks for stopping by.

    @Morpheus: I can walk through life ignoring all those who don’t subscribe to my worldview (and believe me, I often do!) but it won’t make the issue go away, will it?

  • lekhni

    Your post brings back memories. I do have a good friend who had a very hard time finding the right guy because men (even those with M.S. degrees) were intimidated by her PhD. and obvious intelligence. Education apparently does not banish insecurity.

    And at least one guy found my own job title too intimidating. Well, he was the only one who said it, I wonder if others thought that way too. I don’t know why he felt insecure – he had graduated from an IIM and had a good job too..

    Some men are always going to feel intimidated and insecure, no matter what you do, or how you come across. Probably the only women they will not feel insecure about are women whom they can bully or look down upon, women whom they feel are definitely inferior to them.

    Well, we all get what we deserve.

  • kbpm

    There is a humongously strong sentiment about women getting married at the ‘right age’ so that they can quickly produce babies. I definitely see this (and, of course, resent it!). I remember six years ago my uncle (who is damn proud of me for some strange reason) trying to embarrass me in a family situation by singing my praises & listing my achievements. My grandmom came back pat with the reply ‘So what? She does not have children’ !!
    True, we dont want/need to be with people who don’t ‘get’ us, and society is large, we can pick and choose to ignore several parts of it, but when it comes to ones own parents having such deep-rooted conventional expectations, the thing is way too difficult to deal with.
    It does change however, my own family has changed a lot over the years ..

  • Male egos are fragile and it I think it is difficult to accept a
    woman who earns more than you. I think I can handle
    someone of greater intellect but earning power is
    a stumbling block.

    I’ve heard it more than once and it is also my own experience.
    It is perhaps some latent fear that the woman will not respect
    you if you do not provide enough.

    This is what your mother was really saying. Not that she was against you studying further.

  • @Lekhni: I agree with your last paragraph. Just not sure how I feel about the very last line.

    @kbpm: Thank you! You’ve said exactly what I was laboriously, long-windedly trying to. And thanks for the encouragement too. I’m sure your grandmother’s statement must’ve brought on an ‘ouch’ moment.

    @Jack Point: Oh of course I know that she’s really saying. But that doesn’t make me feel less disturbed about it. To stop one of the most precious people in your life in preparation for someone they haven’t even met is ridiculous.
    And sure, male egos can be as fragile as they want. But that’s really not my problem, because I would neither respect nor want to be with such a man in the first place. Also, I don’t see how “providing enough” is the same as “earning more”. Good luck finding someone brighter but poorer! 🙂

  • lekhni

    Well, if the men don’t want intelligent women, they don’t get them.. if we women want men who will not feel insecure about our qualifications/job title etc., then we shouldn’t marry them.

  • I know what you mean and you are right.

    i just meant to say that its worse for some. Much worse.

    I am assuming you have “chosen” do what you do, sudy what u want to study right?

    There are women who’s family ( males) decide what course they should take after school, which turns out to be home science because it contributes in preparing them for marriage and being a good home maker.

    Not to say, we should stop and be thankful for what we have and count the blessings…but right now, a lot of people are talking about how women in India are marching ahead….being recognized in every field etc etc etc….the more things change, the more they seem to remain the same…

  • @Lekhni: Sigh. If only life were that uncomplicated! 🙁

    @Chandni: No, that assumption is faulty. I did not do the Ph.D.

  • Came across this paper in this month’s Atlantic. Thought you might find it interesting. The Atlantic summary states:

    The study finds that when upper-middle-class Indian parents help select a wife for their son, he is 11 percent less likely to marry a college-educated woman and nearly 20 percent less likely to marry a working woman than is a comparable man who enters into a “love marriage,” independent of his parents’ wishes….But in India, where 82 percent of parents over the age of 60 live with their kids, maintaining influence over household affairs can be crucial for those navigating old age. This reality, Mathur writes, leads parents to “prefer a daughter-in-law with inferior human capital attributes because this allows them to extract a larger share of household resources.”

  • @Falstaff: Sigh. So my mother’s right, isn’t she? Well, in the traditional set-up sense, anyway. Thank you for sharing this paper. Fascinating stuff.

  • Sorab Dalal

    I think that it is true that men in our beloved country do not feel too happy about being with a woman who would be considered “smarter” or “more intelligent” than them. For some reason they think that having a Y chromosome means that they must be smarter. It is sad but true. I wonder if there is an evolutionary impulse for this sort of behavior. In the past the best hunter gatherer most fit male got the best choice of mate because he was best able to provide for her and their offspring. Ergo, a woman would always be with someone who was better than her in this hunting gathering business. Therefore, in this new age where the ability to provide is linked to intelligence, the man must be more intelligent than the woman or else why should she choose to be with him. I am not trying to explain what I personally consider to be extremely stupid behavior, I am only trying to provide an explanation for it (which I am very willing to accept maybe totally incorrect :))
    Cheers for a well written article

  • @Sorab: I see your point. But then, with that argument, a woman would also want a man smarter than her, so he could be better equipped at providing for her. Clearly, that isn’t the case. So does that mean the women somehow crawled out of the Stone Age while the men are still flailing around trapped in that era?

  • Kali

    I am a (professional) mother of a young man and a young woman and I feel the same way about each of them – I want each to not be solely absorbed in their work/studies so that they do not miss the opportunity to meet a true soulmate (as I did their father 30 years ago). A partner and children bring so much into our lives- it would be hard to do justice tto the blessings with words.

  • Sorab Dalal

    @ Dilnavaz Most women that I am acquainted with would suggest that is the case 🙂

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