Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario
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The Marriage Rate of College Women

Milicent Washburn Shinn (1895)
First published in Century Magazine, 50, 946-948.

Posted March 2001

Now that the question of the effect of college life on the health of women seems finally and statistically settled, we are met by a new one, concerning its effect on their chances of marriage. It appears that but a small proportion of college women have married. The higher education may not be undermining our health as a nation, after all; but what if it prove to be undermining our domestic life?

It is not so easy a doubt to meet statistically as its predecessor. But there are some interesting figures to be made out that bear on it. It is possible to analyze pretty closely the degrees in which the marriage rate of college women, under different conditions, does really fall below that of the country at large.

The register of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, representing fifteen leading colleges, East and West, co-educational and separate, affords the fairest possible source for such statistics. Of the 1805 women enrolled in this register for the current year, only 28.2 per cent. are married. The marriage rate for the country at large, for women over twenty years old, is nearly 80 per cent. But to say that college women marry little more than one third as often as other women would be a most careless conclusion. The comparison is misleading in several respects.

I. The rate is lowered by the high proportion of recent graduates in the alumnae body. Of the 1805 names, 887, over 49 per cent., are those of graduates in the latest eight classes, -- women still in their twenties, -- and a scant dozen in all have reached the age of fifty. (This assumes twenty-two as the age of graduation; and that the usual age is rather below than above this, all my data indicate.) No such proportion of young women to the middle-aged and elderly holds, of course, in the community at large. Under twenty-five years old, college women rarely marry: of 277 graduates of the latest three classes, but ten are married. If these youngest classes are left out of account, so that we consider only women who have passed 25, we find 32.7 per cent. married; after the age of 30 is passed, 43.7; after 35, the rate becomes 49.7; while of those who have passed 40 years, 54.5 per cent. are married. The census tables do not fix exactly the general marriage rate for women of this age, but it is not far from 90 per cent. The ultimate probability of a college woman's marriage, therefore, seems to be below 55 per cent., against 90 per cent. for other women -- not quite two thirds as great.

The college woman marries later. The most rapid increase in the rate, in the figures just given for college women, is between the ages of 25 and 30, showing marriage most frequent at this period; while for women in general it is most frequent between 20 and 25. The census shows 9.7 per cent. of all girls between 15 and 20 married, -- an age at which virtually no college women ever marry.

II. The rate is lowered by the high proportion of women educated in colleges for women only. Of the 1805 women, 1134, nearly 63 per cent., are graduates of women's colleges; and only 25.7 per cent. of these are married, against 32.6 per cent. of the graduates of co-educational colleges. The following table shows that the difference remains fairly constant as the marriage rate increases with age:

Marriage Rate.
Co-edu. (Per cent.)         Wom. Coll. (Per cent.)
For women over 25 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .             38.1                                   29.6
"         "         "    30 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .             49.7                                   40.1
"         "         "    35 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .             53.6                                   46.6
"         "         "    40 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .             56.9                                   51.8

There is no discrepancy in age between the two groups that materially affects the comparison. But it is affected by the fact that all the women's colleges are in the same section of the country, and marriage conditions differ East and West: therefore I have compared the rates for the graduates of the two types of institutions in the North Atlantic section alone, -- leaving out, for greater fairness, the earlier Vassar classes, which run a decade farther back than any others in this section, and also the classes of Bryn Mawr, since this college is a decade younger than the rest. This gives a comparison between two groups of women as nearly alike in age, environment, and every condition except the one we seek to measure, as it is possible to get.[1] As it includes no women over 40, [p. 947] the actual rates are of course low: viz., 29 per cent. for the graduates of co-educational colleges, 22.9 per cent. for the graduates of women's colleges.

The marriages between fellow-students under the co-educational system are perhaps enough to account for this difference. But it has been my impression in observing college women that four years of early womanhood spent in seclusion from free acquaintance with men, and in a pretty elaborate and pleasant social life constructed out of purely feminine materials, left a woman less fitted afterward for informal friendships and coöperations with men; and it may be that these informal relations prove oftener the path to marriage for thoughtful women than more conventional social intercourse.

III. The rate is lowered by the high proportion of women from the North Atlantic States. Of the 1805 women, nearly 54 per cent. live in that section now; and over 77 per cent. are graduates of its colleges. Of these graduates, but 26.6 per cent. are married, against 37.1 per cent. of the graduates of Middle Western colleges. Only 22 graduates of the University of California (the only Pacific institution included) are married, but the figure is valueless, owing to a sharp rise in numbers lately, such that nearly 40 per cent. of the alumnae are in the three latest classes. The following table shows the difference constant, -- except for the high rate for California graduates over thirty-five years old, probably a mere accident, as the number of names on which it is based is but twenty-seven.
Marriage Rate.
North Atlant. (Per cent.)     Middle West. (Per cent.)   Calif.(Percent.)   
                                                   For women over 25 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .              30.6                                   41.5                                36
                                                    "          "         "  30 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .              42.2                                   50.9                                45.5 
                                                    "          "         "  35 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .              46.4                                   54.5                                78.6
                                                    "          "         "  40 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .             50.3                                   57.1

The rate for the North Atlantic section is lowered by the fact that all the women's colleges are in that part of the country; the influence of section is shown more exactly by the comparison of the rate for graduates of the North Atlantic co-educational colleges with that of the graduates of Middle Western colleges for the same period of years, -- 29 per cent. and 33.6 per cent., respectively.

If we compare according to the present residence of graduates, we find the sectional differences in marriage rate the same, though we deal here with groups quite differently distributed, for many women who live in the West attend Eastern colleges, and the graduates of all the colleges scatter far and wide as teachers.

Marriage Rate. Per cent.
                                        Residents of North Atlantic States . . . . . . . .                                                            23.7
                                              "         "  Middle West . . . . . . . . . . . . . .                                                            35.7
                                              "         "  South . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .                                                           28.4
                                              "         "  Pacific Coast . . . . . . . . . . . . . .                                                            29.4
                                              "         "  Foreign Countries . . . . . . . . . . .                                                           53

Apart from the inconsiderable group who live abroad, it is evident that college women marry most in the Middle West, and least in the North Atlantic States (as a matter of fact, it is least of all in New England, though I have not here segregated the figures). Yet the census shows that -- contrary to popular impression -- the general marriage rate is highest in the North Atlantic States; next in the "North Central" division, which corresponds closely with my "Middle West"; next in the "Far West" (but in California alone, highest of all); and lowest in the South. Here is no correspondence with the sectional variation that seems so constant in the marriage rates of college women; this, it would seem, then, is not due to the general marriage conditions of each community, but to special conditions affecting its relation to college women; possibly it measures the degree of favor in which learned women are held. I have never observed that this favor was highest on the whole in the classes where learning and high refinement are most to be looked for, but rather among the "plain people," whose stronghold, we are accustomed to think, is in the Middle West.

Even there, the probability of a college woman's marriage by the time she "comes to forty year" does not reach two thirds of the average for women of her age. It is possible it does not fall so far below that of her own class as below that of the community at large. I once made a comparison between the alumnae of the University of California and those of a large seminary close by, which had kept a careful alumnae record, and found that for the period covered -- thirteen years -- the college women married in about the same proportion as the seminary women, and at about the same length of time after graduation. So far as the census throws any light on the subject, however, it indicates no lower marriage rate in the class from which college women are drawn than in other classes -- for native white women, born of native parents, have a marriage rate a trifle above the average.

If it be asked why college women marry less than others, it may very safely be answered, to begin with, that it is not because they crave a more exciting and public life; for the majority of them are school-teachers. In the register of the Association, address after address is at some school; nearly 63 per cent. of the California branch are teachers. The [p. 948] Association includes but thirty-four physicians, and a half-dozen lawyers, preachers, and journalists. A few members are librarians, or employees of some scientific staff; a very few are in independent business. The women that write striking books, that lead in public movements, that address great audiences, that explore and venture, are rarely among them. The conspicuous exceptions -- notably Lucy Stone and Frances Willard -- were among the earliest graduates; the present type of college woman is conservative, retiring, and more apt to disappoint expectation by differing too little than too much from other respectable, conventional folk -- exactly as college men do.

It is probable that in the very general employment of college women as teachers in girls' schools lies one effective cause of celibacy. There is no station in life (save that of a nun) so inimical to marriage as that of resident teacher in a girls' school. The graduates of women's colleges usually prefer teaching in private girls' schools, while co-educational graduates seek the public high schools; and this may have something to do with the difference in their marriage rates. It is probable, too, that the private girls' school is a more frequent institution in the Atlantic States than in the West.

No one who has any extended acquaintance with college women doubts that the quiet and even pursuits of college, during years that might else have gone to social gaieties, increase rather than lessen the disposition to congenial home life; that the danger to unselfish affection from a student's ambition is slight compared to the danger from the ambition of social display; that in women as in men the emotional nature grows with intellectual growth, while becoming at the same time more even and controlled. That they are highly maternal as a class, a more conspicuous success as mothers than in any other calling they have tried, is now evident; it is doubtless here, and not in the learned professions, in letters, or in public life, that the main effect of the higher education of women is to be looked for.

But the bent toward congenial marriage may lessen the actual probability of marriage. It is not the ardent woman, but the cold woman, for whom one marriage will do as well as another. And the college woman is not only more exacting in her standards of marriage, but under less pressure to accept what falls below her standard than the average woman, because she can better support and occupy herself alone. As a matter of fact, unhappy marriages are virtually unknown among college women.

I have no doubt that the remaining cause of the low marriage rate is that many men dislike intellectual women, -- whether because such women are really disagreeable or because men's taste is at fault, I shall not try to determine. And even among those who like them as friends, many feel as the young man did who made this confession:

"I never expected to marry the sort of girl I did. You know I always believed in intellectual equality and all that, and had good friendships with the college girls. But you see, you girls hadn't any illusions about us. After you had seen us hanging at the board on problems you could work, and had taken the same degrees yourselves, you couldn't imagine us wonders just because we had gone through college; and when I met a dear little girl that thought I knew everything -- why, it just keeled me right over; it was a feeling I had no idea of."

And the college woman answered:

"I will betray something to you. Lots of us are just as unreformed as you: we want just as much to look up to our husbands as you want to be looked up to. Only, of course, the more we know, the harder it is to find somebody to meet the want. Probably the equal marriage is really the ideal one, and everybody will come to prefer it some day. But personally, I like men to be superior to me: only I'll tell you what I don't like in them: the wish to keep ahead of us by holding us back, like spoiled children that want to be given the game, and then admired for their skill. If men would encourage us to do our very best, and then do still better themselves, it ought to be good for civilization."

I am not here discussing the significance, but only the facts, of celibacy among college women: it does not seem to me, however, as important a social phenomenon as some have considered. It may be a temporary one, a small sign among others of a movement toward higher standards of marriage and parenthood. If not, it is not a matter for regret that the unmarried women of the country should be largely of a class that can be more contented and useful in single life than others might. And in any case, we need not doubt that all good knowledge is safe in the long run for all men and women.

Milicent Washburn Shinn.


[1] A writer in the "Nation," commenting on some similar figures published by me several years ago, points out that the graduates of the women's colleges are in fact somewhat younger than those of the co-educational colleges for the same period of years, because the classes have increased more rapidly in numbers in the women's colleges. I have taken pains to make the somewhat tedious calculation necessary, and find that the co-educational graduates do in fact average .7 of a year older, and that an allowance for this would make the co-educational marriage rate exceed that for the separate system by 5 per cent., instead of 6.9, as above.