CHAPTER 1 | Are You Among the SWANS?
Are you a strong, smart, single woman aspiring to great things? Are you wondering why you haven’t met the right guy yet? Do you feel like you are constantly juggling your work life, your friends and your dating life?
Are you among the SWANS®?
SWANS® stands for
And there are more SWANS now than ever before.
Revered for their composure and beauty, and sometimes feared for their strength, swans make a rather descriptive and colorful metaphoric parallel for the growing group of high-achieving single women in America today.
Swans are strong, graceful birds that sail alone for more than a third of their lives, but when they mate, as most do, they generally do so for life. The ancient Greeks believed swans were the birds of the Muses. In Norse mythology, the swan maiden was incredibly beautiful and desirable but impossible for a man to capture against her will. Hans Christian Andersen’s ugly ducking struggled to ﬁnd its place in the duck world until it realized its beauty as a graceful swan.
SWANS—Strong Women Achievers, No Spouse—are smart, successful women who have high hopes for their future. Some SWANS have graduate degrees or earn high salaries, while others are working in creative fields or public service. These smart women know that success isn’t about the money or the title. It’s all in your attitude. SWANS are women of all ethnicities and religions, from all types of socioeconomic backgrounds. SWANS hold their heads high when they walk into a crowded room and have ambitious dreams for their futures.
Throughout my research, I’ve been privileged to meet hundreds of SWANS. In New York, I met a young anesthesiologist who works out in a T-shirt that reads “Real Men Marry Doctors.” In Maryland, I met a painter who told me proudly about her first gallery opening. In Tucson, I met two black SWANS who inspire their community, one through motivational speaking in her Baptist church, and another by her work as the local “Diva Dentist.”
But all these women have one thing in common: They wonder why, in spite of all their success, they are still single.
Does this sound like you?
Do you cringe when you hear bad news in the media about your odds of marriage, or receive yet another forwarded email from a friend or a relative about how men are intimidated by smart women like you?
Do you want to live your life to the fullest right now, and very much hope to meet the costar in the amazing screenplay you are writing for your future?
Hundreds of women have approached me after speeches and panels to announce, with pride, “I’m among the SWANS.” Others have said, “Well, I’m not sure I’m among the SWANS yet, but I’m working on it…” and have gone on to share their personal stories with me.
So what about you?
Are you among the SWANS? Take this quiz to find out. (Yes/No answers)
Are you a strong, smart, single woman aspiring to great things?
Are you wondering why you haven’t met the right guy yet?
Are you worried that you might be too smart for most guys?
Did you—or do you plan to—attend college?
Did you—or do you plan to—attend graduate school?
Are you constantly juggling your work-life, your friends and your dating life?
Have you accepted a new job or received a promotion recently?
Do you ever wonder why you are still single—and worry that men don’t fall in love with smart women like you?
Have you been going to your friends’ weddings recently—without a date?
Do well-meaning relatives frequently ask you about your dating life?
Is it true that 90% of single successful men are looking to marry a woman who is as or more intelligent?
Are you sick of bad-news media reports about the chances of happiness for young, successful women?
I’m not waiting for a man to come along: I’m living my life to the fullest right now.
Have you ended a relationship with a man because you knew you could do better?
Do you hope to balance a career and a family in the future?
• • • • • •
0 – 4: Maybe you are a SWANS-in-the-making, or perhaps you’ve already met the right man for you. Even if you are a married woman, you know plenty of SWANS – Strong Women Achievers, No Spouse. Your best friend? Your daughter? Your cousin? Your coworker? This book will help you help them learn to find their own voice.
5 – 9: You’re among the SWANS, and this is the perfect book to achieve your full potential. First, you need to figure out what you want out of life, your career and your relationships – only then will you be in the best place to meet Mr. Right. It’s time to tap into the power of your inner SWANS.
10 – 15: You are a card-carrying member of the SWANS – Strong Women Achievers, No Spouse. You are confident in yourself and your accomplishments, and you are sick of bad-news media reports telling you that you’re too smart to find love. This book will give you the tools to embrace your achievements – to learn to say the “I” in “I love you,” and find the right man who will support you in your professional and personal dreams.
SWANS are women who want to control their love lives. SWANS believe they can be accomplished career women and loving, nurturing wives and mothers if they so choose. And while SWANS are certainly strong and beautiful, they often get a little worried about what the future will hold—and feel themselves cracking a bit under pressure from well-meaning family and friends.
Early on in my research, I met Christina, a 29-year-old public relations specialist, who had just moved to the city. Throughout her 20s, she dated her college boyfriend, but after ﬁve years the relationship ﬁzzled. That’s when the scrutiny began.
“When I was younger my mother said, ‘Promise me you won’t get married before you turn 25,’ and then after I turned 25, I would hear, ‘Well, I opened the life section of the newspaper and I didn’t see your wedding announcement.’ ”
With her recent move and new job, Christina was excited—but also nervous. Like many SWANS, she wondered whether her decision to pursue her career was hurting her chances to ﬁnd personal happiness with a man. Would she have time with the long hours of the new job to meet a guy? Was she intimidating in her power suits? And when would her Mom stop asking whether she’d met anyone “special”? The pressure was building.
It may seem to outside observers that SWANS have it all going for them—she’s smart, she’s doing well in her career–except in their romantic lives. And if you are among the SWANS, you know that not everyone is rooting for you to complete this piece of life’s puzzle.
For example, which do you think makes a better newspaper headline:
Smart Woman Lives Happily Ever After
Smart Woman Terrified She’ll Never Find Happiness
Yes, the media likes to scare SWANS into believing that they have to choose between career and family, between being smart and being feminine. Even successful feminists have gotten into the act—and if you’ve seen any of these media reports, it’s probably making you nervous, too.
Boiling down the headlines from the past several years, a casual reader might deduce that successful women are less likely to get married for a slew of seemingly logical reasons. One nationally publicized study found that men are intimidated by high-achieving women because men are fearful that these outgoing, ambitious women might leave them or cheat on them. The logic is that a woman who has her own money has more choices. And if she’s not happy in her relationship, she can leave.
A corollary of this argument is that relationships don’t last when the woman makes more money than the man. Evolutionary biology dictates that men need to be the hunters: They need to be stronger, better, and more powerful than the woman to feel they have a place in the family. If a woman outearns her boyfriend or husband, she outmans him, and either he will feel so insecure that he withdraws from the relationship, or she will lose interest in such a girly man.
In addition, conventional wisdom subscribes to the notion that ambitious women aren’t motherly or nurturing: Success is a masculine characteristic. How could a woman who aggressively negotiates multimillion-dollar contracts breast-feed and diaper an infant? And if a woman prioritizes her career, that means that she won’t prioritize her man. At best, a high-achieving woman is depicted as an ice princess: beautiful, powerful, and untouchable.
For those successful women who are seeking a man, there’s the assumption that they are interested in only a small, elite group of men. So no wonder they are single: They’re ﬁshing in a very small pond. For generations, women have attempted to “marry up” and have sought out men who are wealthier, more educated, taller, and more ambitious. Men, in turn, have had little problem “marrying down”: seeking out wives who are less intelligent, petite, and ﬁnancially dependent yet adoring. So what happens when more and more women themselves become wealthy, educated, tall, and ambitious? Is it lonely at the top?
Are you overqualiﬁed for love?
In the words of President John F. Kennedy, “The greatest enemy of truth is not the lie—deliberate, contrived, and dishonest, but the myth—persistent, pervasive, and unrealistic.”
It’s time to shatter these outdated myths once and for all. The new large-scale survey data that I—and researchers at premier institutions nationwide—are collecting show that today’s successful, well-educated young women will marry at the same rates as all other women. Indeed, the newest research suggests that more income and education may in fact increase a woman’s chances of marriage.
This negative talk doesn’t just happen in newspapers and magazines.
You know that just because you are fairly confident in your own abilities to excel at work, meet the right guy and build your dream future, not everyone else is so optimistic. How many times has a well-meaning friend asked you – with a look of pity or concern – if you are dating anyone? Are holidays with the family a string of questions about whether you’ve “met anyone special” and worried coos about whether you are too picky? Have your aunts started clucking about when you’re going to “settle down”?
You know they mean well. You know they just want to help. But those persistent questions may irk you. You are pretty sure you’re on the right track… so why is everyone so concerned?
There are all sorts of perky answers to these questions:
“Not yet, Grandma, but when I meet him, I’ll bring him over for you to get a good look.”
“No, Aunt Susie, no one special – but lots of potentials.”
“I’ve been a bit busy for dating for the last few months—I just finished my degree. But I’ll get back to you with an update soon!”
Still, after a while, even the most self-assured SWANS will be asking herself whether everyone knows something she doesn’t. There’s that nagging fear that it is your career or education that is preventing you from meeting the right guy. Or that somehow you’re acting too “intimidating” on dates. Or that you’re too picky. Or that there’s really something wrong with you.
As a proud member of the SWANS, it’s time to break out of that negative cycle. You need tools to achieve your goals, catchy phrases to arm yourself for the next time cocktail party conversation turns to dating and marriage, and reassurance that the future is bright and hopeful.
First, you need to know what’s true—and what’s not. And since you’re a smart woman, that means understanding how times are changing, using your keen SWANS instinct for recognizing—and rejecting—as out-of-date stereotypes, and understanding why Grandma’s dating advice may not be right for you. This book will take you through all three steps. Not only will you learn the facts you need, but you’ll learn from SWANS nationwide how to maximize your chances of making the right match.
Step 1: Knowledge is Power
The first tool you need is the truth: There are more SWANS than ever before.
Women are excelling in the academic world and becoming the strong achievers previous generations dreamed their daughters could be. In 1970, there were only 68 women enrolled in college per 100 men. In 2005, 133 women graduated from college for every 100 men, and women make up the majority, 57 percent, of college classes. This trend is expected to continue: In 2010, projections estimate there will be 142 college degrees awarded to women for every 100 that go to men.
The gains for women in higher education are often even more impressive. More than three times as many women receive master’s, doctoral, or professional degrees now than did in 1970.
The majority of all associate, bachelor, and master’s degrees awarded during the 2000–2010 decade will be conferred on women, and by 2010 women will earn 151 master’s degrees for every 100 awarded to men.
In 1977, only 23 women received professional degrees, such as in law or medicine, for every 100 men. But today, about 50 percent of law school and medical school classes are women, and the vast majority of graduate students in the social sciences and health services ﬁelds are women. Even in the traditionally male ﬁelds of business and ﬁnance, women are excelling: Today more than 33 percent of MBA graduates are women. By 2010, women are expected to earn almost as many professional degrees as men. The projections suggest that women will earn 91 professional degrees for every 100 degrees conferred on men by 2010.
This translates to major strides in the workplace. Women hold almost 50 percent of all corporate management positions, and an increasing number are attaining the top jobs and board seats. Almost half of all privately held businesses are at least 50 percent owned by women. And women hold twice as many senior management positions at large national companies as they did even in 1995.
Women’s strides in the workforce make staying single economically feasible. In addition, changing social mores and the widespread availability of birth control pills and other forms of contraception have lessened the pressure on Americans of all backgrounds to marry young.
The implications of these changes are felt nationally: In 1970, only 6 percent of American women between the ages of 30 and 34 had never married. Now it’s 24 percent, four times greater. The median age of marriage for all women is about 25, but for women with a college degree it’s closer to 27, and for those with a graduate degree it may be above 30 years old. For men, it’s the same story: Thirty-two percent of men age 30–34 have never married, more than quadrupling the 1970 rate.
Today marriage is a choice, not an obligation. For a woman, a solid educational background and a good salary means she can be more selective: Instead of marrying a man for ﬁnancial security or out of fear of being a spinster at 30, women may now choose to marry for compatibility, love, or companionship. For men, successful women represent an equal partner with whom to share life, not a constant drain on their hard-earned money.
Indeed, according to a nationally representative survey I conducted for this research, marriage is important for SWANS: 88 percent of single, successful women reported that they would like to get married, and 86 percent of both men and women in the sample said they wanted to get married. This is in keeping with the national data: The majority of men and women want to be married, and more than 90 percent of Americans do marry. In attitude surveys from the past several decades, three-quarters of men and women consistently report that a good marriage is “extremely important” to them—and an even higher percentage said they had positive feelings about being married.
For most SWANS, there have been long-term relationships, dozens of men who were interested, and at least several conscious choices to remain single. In some cases, SWANS choose not to marry men who are alcoholics, verbally abusive, or completely stuck on themselves, even though these men had great money, power, and prestige. Why? Because as strong women who can achieve in their own right, they know they deserve more. Sometimes SWANS won’t give a guy the time of day because he’s too short, has a spare tire around his waistline, or talks too loudly. These may be petty reasons, but still, it’s their choice.
SWANS are accomplished, smart young women who realize that the goal isn’t to get married—it’s to have a good marriage and to lead a happy and fulﬁlled life. Finding Mr. Right takes time and patience.
Step 2: Let Go of Stereotypes
Articles, movies, and television reinforce the stereotype that successful women are cold, calculating, and, well, bitchy. According to my national research, high-achievers most commonly perceive entertainment media portrayals of successful women as aggressive and ambitious. “I would say the stereotype of a high-achieving woman is driven, smart, savvy, goal-oriented, and someone who is not going to let things get in her way. It’s a cold stereotype,” said Bill, a 32-year-old think tank researcher in Washington. Indeed, warmer characteristics such as kindness, creativity, and good parenting skills scratch the bottom of the list of qualities that pop to men’s minds when they see successful women on TV. Successful women suffer from a bad public image—and it’s gone on for too long. For decades, we’ve read articles about the problems that ensue when a successful man marries a similarly successful woman, namely, how an accomplished wife “complicates” the male CEO’s life as “schedules and interests collide.” According to some media watchdogs, women are more vulnerable to bad reporting. “Women’s lifestyle choices are subjected to greater scrutiny,” said Julie Hollar, the communications director of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. “These articles are more about sparking debate and being controversial than about getting at some real truth.”
Still, these media caricatures reinforce the conventional wisdom that men are intimidated by successful, strong women. And SWANS are paying attention. Should women reinvent themselves to play down their strong side and play up the many other Ss of being a woman: soft, sweet, sexy women achievers? Evolutionary biology tells us that men are looking for youth and beauty in women: Make her pretty, docile, sweet, subordinate, and chaste, and she’s the one. But these go-getter SWANS aren’t docile or subordinate. Is it possible that both high-achieving men and women seek similar goals in life but are blinded by stereotypes?
Step 3: Don’t Follow Grandma’s Advice—Times Have Changed
Your grandmother was a smart woman. She offered you lots of good advice about sitting up straight, respecting your elders and carrying yourself like a lady. But her dating advice just doesn’t apply to you.
In Grandma’s day, things were different for smart, successful women: Women were told to demur to their man. “No one likes a smarty-pants,” mothers told their precocious daughters. Decades went by, times changed, yet the advice remained the same: Men don’t like women who are too smart, so if you want to land the man, you’ve got to play up your softer, sexier side—and hide those smarts.
Today SWANS worry that this conventional wisdom is still true: that men are scared off, or turned off, by a woman’s accomplishments. Indeed, nearly half of successful women believe their success is hurting their chances of getting married. Some 48 percent of single women ages 35 to 40 said they believed a woman who has achieved career or educational success would be less likely to get married, and 41 percent of all women with graduate degrees disagreed that men were more attracted to women who are successful in their careers.
“I’m sexy, attractive, entertaining, and I have wonderful friends and an interesting job. But I’m worried that by being interesting I might be scary and intimidating to men,” said Emily, a 29-year-old credit card company consultant. “It seems like at least half of the men I meet are intimidated by me,” says Adrianna, a dentist in Tucson. And Amanda, a petite 33-year-old museum curator, said there are days when she is terriﬁed that she stayed in school too long and educated herself out of the marriage market.
Today’s damaging myth represents the painful realities of recent generations: the grandmothers, and even the mothers, of today’s young professional women. A woman who graduated from college in the 1920s had lifetime marriage probabilities that were fully 20 percentage points lower than those women of their generation who hadn’t gone to college.
For women of the generation that has now risen to the highest ranks of most professions, women for whom graduate school became more common, higher education seemed to be the way to spinsterhood: In 1980, a woman with 19 years of education—that’s college plus graduate school—had approximately a 66 percent chance of being married at age 40 to 44, compared to a woman with 12 years of education, who had an 83 percent likelihood of being married at that age.
Loosely translated, those statistics said, “Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.” Sober statistics like these prompted Newsweek magazine in 1986 to famously declare that a single, college-educated 40-year-old woman had a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than of ever tying the knot.
In the 1970s and 1980s, sociology embraced the ﬁndings of evolutionary biology as a way to explain the dating and marriage patterns of the time as somehow predetermined by nature. Academic articles routinely reported that women were more attracted to high-status men because such men were perceived as “providers,” whereas men were attracted to pretty and docile women because they were perceived as “motherly” and fertile. Although feminism was making enormous legal strides, leading academic sociologists, buried in prehistoric eras, were oblivious to the major social changes going on all around them.
In real life, media reports and academic theories of the day notwithstanding, dating and marriage trends had already begun a historic shift. SWANS who are now approaching or in their 40s reﬂect happily on the differences between today and recent decades past. “It was very depressing in the 1980s to hear the stats,” said Julia, a 37-year-old lawyer in New York who once considered herself, a successful married woman, to be “a ﬂuke.” Said Elaine, 43, “Femininity and power don’t necessarily clash anymore. But when I was growing up, there was still a dichotomy.”
Mothers of today’s SWANS marvel at the different paths their daughters are taking—and the myriad choices available to them.
Alice, 56, has her master’s in public health and teaches at a prominent college. Yet she said she always felt that her husband had the “career” while she merely had a job. Her career, she said, was raising her two children.
Alice worked at prestigious posts at government agencies, helped launch grant programs for others studying public health, and worked full-time with the help of a nanny to watch the kids. “I was unusual then,” she said. “I loved my work, but the family always came ﬁrst—it had to.”
Allison, 60, agreed that her experience in her 20s is very different from the options available to young women today. “I grew up, went to college, got married after my junior year, and ﬁnished senior year married,” she said. “I followed my husband in his career and stayed home after my daughter’s birth. At least until the children were in kindergarten, women stopped working when they had children. My mom had done that, and that’s what I did, too.” Allison’s daughter is 28 and taking a completely different path: She has a graduate degree; she’s seriously dating a smart, accomplished man; and she’s looking forward to balancing children and a career simultaneously. “It’s just a different world from what I was doing at her age.”
Still, the negative conventional wisdom that successful women don’t marry is routinely perpetuated in the media, by well-meaning but misguided relatives, and by young women themselves who are concerned that they have overqualiﬁed themselves for romantic happiness.
A 2005 letter to the Dear Abby advice column sums it up: A woman in her early 30s wrote to Abby after reading several articles “about how smart women are less likely to get married.” She and her friends want to meet Mr. Wonderful and get married, she wrote, but she worries that “if we have to curtail our professional success, ﬁnancial wherewithal and IQ to do it, how can a person even begin to do such a thing? . . . Help, Abby! What’s the answer for smart, fun women who have their acts together? How can we best poise ourselves to ﬁnd true love while being true to ourselves?” The young woman signed her letter “Losing Faith in Finding Mr. Right.”
True to form, Abby had some good advice: “Stop reading defeatist newspaper and magazine articles. They’ll only make you desperate, clingy and depressed—and none of those traits is attractive.”
For young women today, the “success penalty” has disappeared. Education and income now have little negative effect on marriage rates, and in many situations, they actually act as beneﬁts, if you have the right tools to use these skills to your advantage. Even Newsweek recanted its gloom-and-doom pronouncements in 2006. Times have changed, but may of our perceptions haven’t … until now.
It’s time for women like you to use the advice in this book to make your own headlines. C’mon girls, it’s time for some good news!
© 2022 CHRISTINE B. WHELAN