The Reader‘s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.
One April morning almost exactly 22 years ago, Kiki Yablon learned from a friend that the women of their college graduating class were at the center of a trend piece in the Wall Street Journal—on the front page no less!
“The women of Northwestern University’s Class of 1991 are following the path of their female mentors a decade ago, graduating from an elite school, moving to big cities, embarking on careers. But increasingly, they are doing one thing their big sisters often put on hold until their 30s or later: They are getting married.” The story backed up this pronouncement with an anecdote about a college acquaintance of Yablon’s who realized, once she turned 26, that all her friends were married, and who felt “relieved” when her own boyfriend finally proposed. The article concluded that women were deciding to marry younger because of abject fear of spinsterhood and career burnout.
The article set off Yablon’s bullshit detector. She called up the Journal reporter, Christina Duff, who admitted that she’d gotten her data by talking to a circle of friends who had all been in the same sorority. “I’m no demographer,” Yablon wrote, “but this seems an especially dubious tack to take when positing a national trend. She decided to do a survey of her own of 55 1991 Northwestern alumnae. Of that cohort, 14 were married, though none had decided to get hitched because of any overwhelming fears of ending up alone and married to their shitty jobs. (These were still the days when it was widely believed that a single woman over 40 was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than marry.)
Yablon went on to debunk most of the other “research” presented in the Journal story by requesting the same data Duff had cited and examining it herself.
As a final attempt to provide hard data, Duff offered this weird and confusing microstatistic: “[In 1994], 47 percent of all first-time brides with diamond engagement rings were in their early to mid-20s, up from 37 percent a decade ago.” A 28-year-old unmarried senior account executive at J. Walter Thompson (DeBeers’ ad agency) faxed me the study from which this number was culled, as well as the size and breakdown of the 1984 sample. “Early to mid-20s” here, in case you were wondering, means 21 to 24 (and of course those polled weren’t asked about their education or employment status). With the help of a calculator, I found that the actual percentage of all brides who fell into that age category had decreased by 9 percent—right in line with the 1993 census. And so, in the end, all this really proves is that women below the average marrying age are more likely to be suckered by a sparkling rock.
But the real question, Yablon decided, was this: “How does such an easily dismantled thesis make it onto the front page of one of the nation’s most respected newspapers?”
That one is a little harder to answer. But it leads to some thoughts about what’s considered “important” journalism and who does the considering. And, weirdly enough, those are the same thoughts many of us are still having today, 22 years later.