51 percent of women unmarried? Not quite, says prof

Couple walking arm in arm

Experts said last month, for the first time, that more American women are living single than with a husband.

The news analysis, conducted by four New York Times reporters and based on 2005 census results, stated that 51 percent of women claim to now be living without a spouse—a percentage that has increased from 35 percent in 1940 and 49 percent in 2000.

But Samuel Preston, the Fredrick J. Warren Professor of Demography in the Department of Sociology and former Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, begs to differ. “It’s highly misleading,” he says of the 51 percent of women cited in the story. “They define women as high school freshmen. They go all the way back to age 15.” The correct figure, he says, is closer to 35 to 40 percent of women who live without a spouse.

Also problematic, says Preston, is the fact that the article’s authors include women who are still married but living apart from their spouses serving in Iraq. “They do everything they can to get the number up to 51 percent,” says Preston, who has published more than a dozen books and 150 papers and reviews on a wide range of demographic topics.

He suggests that perhaps the authors should have looked at the female population beginning at age 25, which is the median age for an American woman’s first marriage. Beginning at age 15 is foolish, he says. “It’s like saying, ‘What percentage of Americans attend college?’, and then start to do the tabulations at age 10. It’s grossly distorted.”

The Times analysis did not take into consideration lesbian couples (because their partnerships are not recorded in the census, says Preston) who may live together, but by law in a majority of states, remain unmarried. Preston notes that the story did correctly point out that marriage rates among African American women remain low—only about 30 percent are living with a spouse.

Why the misreading of these numbers in the Times story? Preston argues there’s certainly an agenda at work. “[There is] tremendous anxiety about the state of the American family.” He cites the infamous Newsweek cover story that appeared a little more than two decades ago, based on the Harvard-Yale study that claimed women over age 30 stood a slim chance of marrying. It became conventional wisdom after it was repeated over and over in the news. Indeed, the Times report, too, has received widespread attention and spurred numerous columns.

But Preston is emphatic that its basic tenet is incorrect. “The trend is certainly increasing—women without a spouse,” he says. “The trend is right, [but] to present it as a majority is not right.”

Originally published on February 15, 2007