Christine Stroebel-Scimeca was recently digging through old boxes in her basement, preparing to move to a new house. In one box, the 50-year-old Wisconsin financial planner came across the June 2, 1986, issue of NEWSWEEK. "The Marriage Crunch," read the cover headline. Below it was a line graph sloping steeply downward, above an ominous subhead: "If You're a Single Woman, Here Are Your Chances of Getting Married."
There's a reason Stroebel-Scimeca had saved the magazine for 20 years. In its pages, she was one of more than a dozen women featured discussing the "cruel reality" of her apparently poor marriage prospects. At the time Stroebel-Scimeca was living in Chicago and frustrated by the fact that her social life didn't seem to be progressing toward a trip down the aisle. "I had a lot of girlfriends in the same boat," she says. Among her peers, talk about the so-called marriage squeeze—fueled by a highly-touted study by demographers at Harvard and Yale—was a frequent topic of conversation.
But a funny thing happened on the way toward spinsterhood—and not just for Stroebel-Scimeca. At age 40, she married; a few weeks ago she and her husband celebrated their 10th anniversary. Today she's the happy stepmom to two children from her husband's first marriage. Looking back on her single days, she recalls the anxiety. "I had the same perception that many women have, which is you're not considered a whole person unless you're married with kids," she says. "But as I approached my 40s, I realized that was totally wrong ... I could still have a very fulfilling life." It was only after she'd come to peace with the fact that she might never marry that she met her future husband while shopping in a grocery store.
Rarely does a magazine story create the sort of firestorm sparked 20 years ago next week when NEWSWEEK reported on new demographic projections suggesting a rising number of women would never find a husband. Across the country, women reacted with anger, anxiety—and skepticism. The story reported that "white, college-educated women born in the mid-1950s who are still single at 30 have only a 20 percent chance of marrying. By the age of 35 the odds drop to 5 percent." Much of the ire focused on a single, now infamous line: that a single 40-year-old woman is "more likely to be killed by a terrorist" than to ever marry, the odds of which the researchers put at 2.6 percent. The terrorist comparison wasn't in the study, and it wasn't actually true (though it apparently didn't sound as inappropriate then as it does today, post 9/11). Months later, other demographers came out with new estimates suggesting a 40-year-old woman really had a 23 percent chance of marrying. Today, some researchers put the odds at more than 40 percent. Nevertheless, it quickly became entrenched in pop culture.
Much has changed since the original story ran. New advances in fertility treatment have made many women worry a little less about biological clocks. Online dating has provided new ways for older singles to match up. And more women are graduating from college than ever before.
To mark the 20th anniversary of this controversial story, NEWSWEEK reporters sought out and and re-interviewed as many of the women in the story as we could find. Out of 14 single women in the article—not counting the therapists, authors and other experts—NEWSWEEK located 11. Among them, eight ended up marrying, and three remain single. Several had children. None divorced.
For her part, Stroebel-Scimeca isn't surprised. "I've watched a lot of people [who married while young] get divorced," she says. "I think that if you do wait until Mr. Right comes along, you have a much better chance of survival."