‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a university-educated, successful single woman in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of an equally wealthy and successful university-educated husband. If she cannot find one, she will resign herself to a life of spinsterhood rather than suffer the shame of “marrying down”.’
Mr Darcy would be a woman in her mid-late 30s who works as a solicitor and just cannot, for the life of her, find a man she’s comfortable introducing to her tote bag-carrying pals. Lizzie Bennett would be a whip-smart bloke from a very normal and/or low-income family who didn’t go to university but, nonetheless, has much to offer.
How did we end up so far through the looking glass, I hear you ask? Well, reader, it all came about because of a study conducted by academics at Cornell University in the States which both The Times and The Daily Mail decided was an excuse to run sexist headlines such as:
‘High-flying career women are refusing to “marry down: despite struggling to find a Mr Right with similar earning power and intelligence’ (Daily Mail)
‘Career women set the bar too high for Mr Right’ (The Times)
However, what the study actually found was that ‘unmarried women, on average, are looking for a man who has an income that is about 66% higher and a likelihood of having a college degree that is about 49% higher than what is available’. This was not based on speaking to women and asking them what they’re looking for in a partner, no, it was based on looking at the data from couples aged between 25 and 45 who are already married from the US Census Bureau and working out a formula based on who is already married to whom and how much they earn.
Flaws in the study aside, there is (as has widely been reported) a growing trend in the US whereby more women are graduating from college than men, meaning that it is statistically speaking at least, less likely for straight women to find a male partner with exactly the same education as them.
In Britain, we have been seeing the emergence of a similar trend for quite a while now. In 2010 the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that although more people overall were going to university, there were slightly more women than men (55 to 43%) getting degrees. In 2017, there was a ‘record high’ university gender gap with UCAS reporting that young women were a third more likely to go to university than men. And then, last year, Oxford University admitted more women than men for the first time in its 1,000-year history.
I have two (very good) degrees. One of them is from Oxford. I’m cohabiting with a long-term partner who has none. In fact, he doesn’t have any A-levels either. What about AS Levels? Nope. GCSEs? ‘A few’. And I’m here to tell you that it has never, ever once been an issue. In fact, I think its part of why our relationship works so well – we come at things from very different perspectives and the decisions we make about our life together are, as a result, balanced and thoughtful.
What troubles me, though, is this. If I am very honest with myself, and with you I don’t think I would have matched with him on a dating app. We met on a night out about 6 months before Tinder first launched in the UK. By some miracle, we managed to have a meaningful conversation at a techno club night, there was loads of chemistry or ‘spark’ or whatever you want to call that nebulous thing that tells you you’re actually attracted to someone and, shortly afterwards, we began dating.
But, he was not my type on paper. What matters more, as I now know, is that he is very much my type in real life. Back then in my early twenties, though, I do think I had somehow absorbed the warped idea of ‘marrying up’ by osmosis from sexist and classist headlines like the ones above, as well as films like Bridget Jones’s Diary and sitcoms like Sex and the City where everyone is so status conscious they can’t actually find happiness.
We broke up briefly after Tinder had launched. I scrolled through the endless human Argos catalogue, looking first at people’s pictures and then, scrolling down to see what they did for a living. A German friend once remarked to me that ‘Britain is a nation where people are obsessed with other people’s jobs’, he found it unnerving that, often, the first question Brits ask someone upon meeting them for the first time is ‘what do you do?’ not ‘how are you?’. Nowhere is this truer than on a dating app which is more LinkedIn than LoveIn. I would match with people I thought had ‘cool’ jobs and, after speaking with my friends, I know they do this too. As one said to me when I told her I was writing this piece ‘my flatmate is always so shocked that I match with people who don’t do jobs like mine…like the time I went on a date with a guy who owned a construction company’.
A few times during my ‘on a break’ period, I caught myself thinking thoughts I am ashamed to write and see on this page in black and white such as ‘but I’m the first person in my family to go to university…what does it say about me if I end up with someone who didn’t go?’. I was being ridiculous. Intelligence cannot necessarily be measured by your qualifications, there are plenty of interesting/important jobs that a degree isn’t going to help you get and, more importantly, having a degree does not necessarily make someone life partner material. Indeed, if the boyfriend I met in the final days of Oxford is anything to go by, it might mean quite the opposite (a narcissistic nightmare who told me my ‘independent woman bullshit was boring’, but that’s another story).
What so often gets forgotten or ignored about Jane Austen is this: she was a satirist. Jane Austen had a critical eye and every single one of her novels was a sharp criticism of Britain’s class system. That is the entire plot of Pride and Prejudice; Austen is unpicking the absurdity of Darcy’s pompous aunt and arguing that all unions should be based on one condition: love. If she were writing today, perhaps she’d take this subject on and, if she did, I’m sure the result would be a character even more radical than Lizzie Bennett was in the context of the early 1800s when Britain didn’t even have a welfare state.
28-year-old Jess works as a studio manager for a well-known fashion brand. Her partner is a painter/decorator with his own business. She too says the fact that she went to university and, on paper, does a more ‘professional’ job has never been a problem. ‘At the moment, my boyfriend actually earns more than me’ she says, ‘but in terms of education I do think some people grow up expecting to meet a man who is more “successful” whatever that even means…it’s all about very traditional gender roles’. The problem, as Jess sees it, is that ‘this mentality encourages women to just see their careers as a distraction until a man comes along’.
‘I think it’s so sad that people care about this stuff’ Jess adds ‘especially now…so many people are told to go to uni and they have absolutely no idea why they’re going or what they want to do…they’re just getting into debt. But there’s this idea that, somehow, if you go then you’re superior.’
Journalist Laura, 27, agrees. She met her music producer boyfriend at a music festival a few years ago and they’ve been together ever since. ‘It doesn’t bother me at all that he doesn’t have a degree’ she says, ‘he’s far happier without the ridiculous student loan debt, he reads loads and has an endless thirst for knowledge…in fact…I’d be inclined to say he’s better educated than many of my uni peers’. More importantly, Laura says ‘I also owe so much of my own happiness to him being so generous, kind and generally treating me really well.’
The very idea that a woman should ‘marry up’ is so bogus. The fact it reinforces archaic notions of class aside, it also completely undermines any progress we may have made in terms of gender equality and belies a fundamental fear of women breadwinners. It is telling that the only person who has ever made a remark about my relationship to me was an older, posher man whom I worked alongside at the BBC. On finding out that my boyfriend had left school at 16, with few qualifications and no degree he quipped: ‘is that because you always need to be the smartest person in the room?’. I’ll just leave his crippling insecurity there.
If these trends continue then, yes, there may well be more single university educated men than single university-educated women. Does this mean we should be worried about successful women having to ‘lower their standards’ or ‘marry down’? If you’ve caught yourself thinking that perhaps it’s time to take a cold shower. Firstly, so many people get degrees these days that we ought to question whether they really mean anything anymore, anyway. Secondly, the number heterosexual couples where only one person works while the other stays at home are in decline, so if you’re pinning all of your hope to someone more successful/wealthier than you, you’re going to be very disappointed.
Finally, surely the real question to ask yourself when you look at the stat that working-class white males are the least likely group to go into higher education is this: what are we doing as a society that is so badly failing young men from low-income backgrounds