Meet Christine Whelan—an attractive, 29-year-old woman with a PhD from Oxford University. When I spoke with her she happened to be single, having been dumped two years earlier by a man who told her she was intellectually intimidating. For a break-up line it seems fairly believable. After all, Dr. Whelan is a successful author, journalist, and commentator who has taught at Princeton University and has been published by the likes of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. She is exactly the type one would expect to see leading the campaign declaring that men are frightened off by smart women. At the very least she should be among those applauding Maureen Dowd’s 2005 book, Are Men Necessary?, a controversial tome charging that men just want women who will be content to take care of all their needs. Dowd's view was that, “Guys want to be in relationships with women they don’t have to talk to,” and that, “females are still programmed to look for older men with resources while males are still programmed to look for younger women with adoring gazes.”

Her own breakup experience notwithstanding, Christine Whelan strongly disagrees with Dowd’s assessment. Whelan’s 2006 book, Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women, explains that “when women buy into gender-based stereotypes of what a man is looking for in a woman, they not only insult the men they are trying to attract, but also give off negative vibes about their own self-confidence.” The reality, according to Whelan, is that men do make passes at women with glasses—the marriage market has been changing and Dowd’s claims are at least two decades out of date. While we all may be attracted to an adoring gaze, we’re much more attracted if that gaze also reveals underlying intelligence and the kind of character that has the potential to lead to success, whatever our definition of that term might be.

To be fair to Dowd, it must be acknowledged that she probably had little good news at her disposal with which to counter the old stereotypes. Today's media files are swollen with newsbytes warning that women who spend too many 'marriageable years' pursuing education will find they've missed the marriage boat entirely. Even some of the largest news sources in the country have accepted this fallacy. One of these, Newsweek Magazine, has only recently apologized for its famous hyperbolic prediction that single, 40-year-old women had “a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than getting married.” Intended as a joke, this statement has been repeated so often it has become indistinguishable from fact. The apology is too late, the lie has caught on, and there are few now who question the belief that women who delay marriage to pursue higher degrees may be educating themselves out of the marriage pool. So why is Dr. Christine Whelan swimming against the media tide?

To Whelan, the idea that she and others like her were single because they were ‘too intelligent’ to attract a man no longer seemed plausible. “It’s a flattering explanation, isn’t it?” she admits, “But it’s just statistically not true.”

How does Whelan know this? Tired of myths and determined to dig for the truth, she culled information from US Census data, and even commissioned her own Harris Interactive Survey. She unearthed research by prominent sociologists, previously ignored by the media, and conducted personal interviews with men and women in New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tucson and Houston. The picture that emerges from her painstaking research is paradigm-shifting, and the news optimistic.

“Smart, successful women marry at the same rate as other groups.” Whelan insists. “In fact, in recent years they are marrying at higher rates. The conventional wisdom is really out of date.” Then why are there so many smart, beautiful women who are still single? “Americans are marrying later overall,” she explains, “so a woman in her 30’s is much more likely to be single today than she was several decades ago. Indeed, for single women over the age of 30, being highly educated may mean you are more likely to get married.”

But there may be other things that get in the way of marriage for today’s ‘SWANS.’ (This is Whelan’s apt acronym for Strong Women Achievers No Spouse). During our discussion, Whelan addressed several obstacles, beginning with the problem that occurs when smart, successful women think they need to marry ‘up.’

“If a woman is insistent that she’s looking for a smarter man, it gets to be an increasingly difficult criterion to fill," says Whelan. "That doesn’t mean she can’t find a smart man who is going to have a wonderful relationship with her. A lot of the women I spoke with for my book said they weren’t looking for a smarter man; they were looking for a complementary mate. Someone who works with them, who supports them, who has a career that is complementary to theirs. So if they’re an investment banker that’s working 100 hours a week, maybe a man who has a more creative side to him would be the “smart man” that they’re looking for. Women are really embracing this. In fact, according to census data for married women who make more than $50,000 a year, 55 percent are married to men who make less money than they do.”

Whelan suggests that women who believe they couldn’t be happy in such a relationship need to think about what marriage really means. “A lot of times when we’re making these laundry lists of what we’re looking for in a man or woman, we lose sight of what marriage is about. If you were with a man who was clearly incredibly intelligent and had four PhD’s—maybe he wouldn’t be able to dress himself or something. He could be really strange! We should be looking for a good partnership. The goal is not getting married, it’s about having a happy marriage with the right person. Later marriage actually increases the likelihood that you’ll meet the right person, and divorce rates are much lower when men and women marry in their mid twenties and later rather than earlier.”

Another obstacle to marriage success occurs when belief in the over-qualification myth begins to affect a woman's attitude. Whelan's advice? “Stop perpetuating the myth that you’re too smart to get married. Just think about it. If you go into a date situation and you have the attitude that, “I’m fabulous and I’m intimidating!”—how do you think that’s going to come off? In fact, I titled one of my chapters, “Hi, I’m Fabulous.” I think this is something women really need to let go of. If you are confident in your odds of marriage, confident in yourself—that will show through.”

Although Dr. Whelan advises against bragging, she doesn’t endorse the opposite extreme either. “Don’t downplay your accomplishments,” she says. “That’s a bad idea. You want someone who loves you for you, you don’t want a man who’s going to be intimidated by you. In fact, the men I’ve spoken with have said they’re looking for a woman who is as or more accomplished than they are, and as or more intelligent. They’re certainly not going to be put off by your successes, so don’t downplay them.”

Finding these claims hard to believe? In her book, Whelan backs them with hard census data and survey statistics. Here are a few that might be surprising:

• 71 percent of high-achieving men said a woman’s career or educational success makes her more desirable as a wife.

• 92 percent of men who describe themselves as “successful” or “very successful” say they are more attracted to women who are also successful.

• High-achieving men are attracted to women who are as intelligent, accomplished, ambitious, educated, and confident as they are, or more. 89 percent of high-achieving men report that they’d like to marry, or already have married, a women who is as intelligent as they are, or more so.

Unfortunately, women may not be giving men the credit they deserve. Whelan quotes a recent poll in which 74 percent of women were sure men would be intimidated by ‘accomplished SWANS.’ Yet in the same poll almost an equal number of men insisted they would not have a problem. “It’s not about money or who is more successful,” says one of the men Whelan interviewed. “It’s about two people who love to be together, and anything that’s good that happens to one should make the other happy.”

Clearly, women have misjudged their prospects.

And what about Whelan’s prospects? Has she reaped the benefit of her research? When I spoke to her she was engaged to be married, now only amused by the ex-boyfriend who told her she was ‘intellectually intimidating.’ “The funny moral of the story,” she told me, “is that it wasn’t that I was intellectually intimidating at all. He’s engaged to be married to a business-school graduate who is incredibly smart and talented. It turns out it was just a line.”

Whelan hopes her book will be greeted as good news, and asks SWANS to “enjoy your single years and achieve your dreams.” She adds, “To me, the saddest part of it is that we’re so caught up with worrying about this that we’re unable to just have fun and enjoy this fabulous time.” A similar idea is expressed in Whelan’s book by of one of her interviewees, a woman named Rebecca, “My fundamental perspective is you should enjoy whatever stage of life you are in because that allows you to take advantage of all the great things that happen at that particular point and to…live that experience fully to be able to be ready to be in a different place.”

That different place for Whelan may be a follow-up book. She says the next one may focus on the high-achieving marriage. “What happens when you get a smart man and a smart woman together, and how do you balance children?” she wonders. Her current research already gives a tantalizing taste of what she may find. Census figures attest that when they do get married, high-achieving women have children at the same rate as other groups, and 68 percent of the men in Whelan’s survey believed these educated, productive women make better mothers. Even more surprising, the men in Whelan's survey were just as likely as women to say they'd love to be able to stay home with their children if they could afford to do so.

Do today's men want to be much more involved with their children than some of those in generations before them? Is the desire to pass down valuable knowledge to one's children through personal interaction a drive shared by both sexes? What strategies do strong, successful men and women use to keep their marriages and families as strong and successful as they are?
We can only wait for Dr. Whelan’s next book to find out.

Author's Bio: 

Gina Stepp is a writer and editor with a strong interest in education and the science that underpins family and relationship studies. She began working toward a Journalism major and Psychology minor at the University of Central Florida before moving to California where she completed her BA in Theology in 1985. To contact Gina Stepp, please email at