‘Leftover’ women on the rise

American women of a certain age might remember the June 2, 1986, issue of Newsweek, the cover headline reading: “The Marriage Crunch.” 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.”

Across the country, women reacted with anger and anxiety.

Much of the fury 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 even true.

Much has changed since the original story ran: new advances in fertility treatment have made women less worried about biological clocks; online dating has provided new ways for older singles to match up. But the pressure for women to be married by a certain age is still heavily entrenched in American culture, just as it is ingrained in most cultures around the world.

At the beginning of the month, I read a BBC article about a new fad in China: renting a boyfriend. The article, “Boyfriends for hire to beat China’s wedding pressure,” came out a few days before the Chinese New Year, which was February 10.

The article quoted Zhou Xiaopeng, a consultant with Baihe.com, one of China’s largest dating agencies. She said the pressure for singles to settle down crescendos around Chinese New Year.

“Picture a scene where people sit around a table,” Zhou was quoted. “Chinese people love to get together for dinner. On New Year’s Eve, everybody is sitting in pairs, your brother with your sister-in-law, your sister with your brother-in-law, and so on. If you’re the only one left behind, you can imagine the pressure and frustration.”

Dozens of classified ads promise to provide a male companion for the holidays, pretending to be a single woman’s plus one. There’s a menu of possibilities: $5 per hour to accompany a girl to dinner, $8 for a kiss on the cheek, $80 if he spends the night and sleeps in his own bed, $95 if he must sleep on the couch.

Studies show that nine out of 10 men in China think women should get married before 27. And if a woman is unmarried after that age, then she’s labeled “sheng nu,” or “leftover woman.”

State-run media started using the term in 2007, the same year the government warned that China’s gender imbalance – caused by selective abortions because of the one-child policy – was a serious problem.

Census figures for China show there are now about 20 million more men under 30 than women under 30, and that around one in five women aged 25-29 is unmarried. The proportion of unmarried men that age is higher – over a third.

So why don’t they just match up? Because in Chinese culture, men often “marry down” in terms of age, as well as educational attainment.

Therefore, state-run media keep up a barrage of messages aimed at older, educated woman.

“Pretty girls do not need a lot of education to marry into a rich and powerful family. But girls with an average or ugly appearance will find it difficult,” reads an excerpt from an article titled, “Leftover Women Do Not Deserve Our Sympathy,” posted on the website of the All-China Federation of Women in March 2011. It continues: “These girls hope to further their education in order to increase their competitiveness. The tragedy is, they don’t realize that as women age, they are worth less and less. So by the time they get their MA or PhD, they are already old – like yellowed pearls.”

In the last few months, the website has dropped the term; it now refers to “old” unmarried women. But the expression is still widely used in the Chinese culture.

Like in the States, the age of marriage is on the rise: in 1950, the average age for urban Chinese women to marry for the first time was just under 20; by the 1980s it was 25; now it’s 27. This usually happens in places where women become more educated.

I hope women around the world continue to ignore contemptuous rhetoric that undermines their life goals and pressures them into the wife role. For their freedom to choose is too rich a pearl for carnal swine.

Sarah T. Schwab is a Sunday OBSERVER contributor and Fredonia State graduate. Send comments to

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