Baird: Why Women Should Not Settle

Remember that scene in When Harry Met Sally when Harry refuses to believe that a man called Sheldon could be a great lover? "A Sheldon can do your taxes," he says. "If you need a root canal, he's your man. But between the sheets is not Sheldon's strong suit." Sally didn't care—but Lori Gottlieb did. In her new book, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, she says she hesitated before dating someone because he had the name of a "nerdy sidekick." She also balked at the fact that he had been upset by his divorce a year earlier, he loved sports, and he was born in the Bronx, a place she "associated with beer-can-smashing guys with thick accents." Her type, she said, was "sophisticated intellectuals."

Sounds awful, right? As she weighed up her matchmaker's assurances that this man was not "belching" or "rough talking" and had been Ivy League-educated, "Sheldon" started dating another woman. This incident caused Gottlieb to rethink her standards—and go on to mount a case that the reason many women are unable to find love is that they are superficial and hypercritical, as she was. Gottlieb, a 42-year-old single mother, caused quite a stir when she wrote a piece for The Atlantic in 2008 telling women to settle for men with shortcomings like bad breath—and not hold out for a big, heart-clenching love. If they did not, she argued, they would find themselves alone and without someone to help with the hard slog of bringing up kids. Marriage, she wrote, was not a "passionfest," but a "boring, nonprofit business." Just makes a girl want to crack open the champagne, doesn't it? In her book, Gottlieb posits herself as the latest example of that now-clichéd cautionary tale, Women Who Dare to Dream of Love, Don't Find It, and End Up Tragically Alone. The prevalence of these kinds of stories does not diminish the struggle and heartbreak behind them. Gottlieb's sadness is another lament for the unlucky in a generation who delayed marriage longer than any other, risking their fertility, and found themselves fighting for a family in ways our mothers would not have dreamed of. Half a dozen of my friends are having children on their own: buying sperm, signing up for IVF, freezing eggs.

But it's a leap of illogic to suggest that the answer is for women to settle for humdrum marriages with men you tolerate so you can have a father for your children. How insulting for men: imagine going to a boyfriend's house and seeing Marry Her: The Case for Settling for Ms. Good Enough on his shelves. And whom does Gottlieb blame? Guess. "I know this is an unpopular thing to say," she writes, "but feminism has completely f--ked up my love life." Um, I know why it's unpopular: because it's completely unfair. Feminism is a centuries-old social movement, not a self-help book—we can't blame it for bad decisions we make about men. The problem, as Gottlieb sees it, is that women were told they could have it all, which meant not compromising in any aspect of life, including dating (which is odd because people who can't compromise aren't feminists, they are just generally unpleasant people). Then women got so fussy that they "empowered themselves out of a mate."

This twisted thinking makes my head hurt. First, the only evidence offered to prove that women expect too much is anecdotal. Are some women too picky? Sure. People are shallow, unkind, and judgmental. But I don't know any women who have checklists. If they do, I imagine it's something most grow out of. If you will only date someone who looks like Brad Pitt, "earns a gazillion dollars, and makes your knees go weak every time you're together," as Gottlieb writes, then you're probably either 20 or stupid. Most of us just want to love and be loved. The data show that when it comes to money and education, women are in fact lowering their standards. A Pew study released Jan. 19 found that in 1970, 4 percent of wives earned more than their husbands. In 2007, 22 percent did. The percentage of women who had more education than their husbands rose from 20 to 28.

Second, no movement could possibly tame the great wild lions of love, lust, and luck. Feminists fought for respect and equality: they never promised a perfect world, where nonbelching princes would gallop up at exactly the right time and impregnate us. They told us to be wary of fairy tales, and not to spend our lives waiting for them to come true. It doesn't mean you have to "settle," or give up on love. Some things are still worth dreaming about.

Julia Baird is the author of Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians. Follow heron Twitter.