Educated Black Women: modern society’s ‘outliers’

Educated Black Women: modern society’s ‘outliers’

By: Thembani Mbadlanyana*

Today, research shows that women, worldwide, earn almost 60 per cent of all bachelor’s degrees and more than half of masters and doctoral degrees. Associated with this growing bulge of educated women are questions around their marital prospects. Many research studies that have been conducted in this area have tried to establish a correlation between women’s education level and their marriage prospects. In fact, the marriage prospects of educated women have been hotly debated in recent years and the topic has generated no shortage of scholarly attention, as shown by a number of journal articles on this issue. A quick scan of the literature shows that the dominant narrative is that, the “more educated the woman is, the more likely it is that she will be single due to her economic independence”.  That narrative is accompanied by the perception that more educated women in today’s society are sui generis species–ones that are highly susceptible to ‘singleness’. In other words, highly educated women are more likely to end up as single ‘outliers’ than their less-educated counterparts.

Undoubtedly, that line of reasoning is minimalistic at its best and resembles a methodological in-exactitude of highest order. This is so because controlling for a one variable–financial independence–might lead to inaccurate observations. Hence some people erroneously believe that the idea of educated women’s ‘singleness’ starts and ends at an ideational or abstract level. To this end, questions arise:  in reality, do educated women really lead lonely lives marred by singleness? And can the same be said about Black women as well?  Is the reason for educated women’s ‘singleness’ only limited to financial independence or are there any other causal variables at play? Can the blame be also apportioned to feminism and feminist movements for shifting the ‘geography of reasoning’ of educated women and for telling them that educational and career achievements are the most important things in life?

Elsewhere, and more recently, Bertrand, Kamenica and Pan, “Gender identity and relative income within households” (2013), argue that in the United States, “gender identity plays an important role in marriage formation”. These authors find that  when women begin to earn more money than their husbands, the “threatening wife” takes on “greater share of housework so as to assuage the ‘threatened’ husband’s unease with the situation”. They go on to argue that “a woman always values a man’s intelligence and ambition, but a man values a woman’s intelligence and ambition only if it does not exceed his own… [thus] if men and or women dislike unions where the husband earns less than the wife, as women command a greater share of labor income, marriages may become less appealing and thus less common.”

I am however of the view that, any meaningful analysis that seeks to explore the causal relationship between education and marriage should not only address the above questions, but should also underscore the centrality of:

  • Changing conceptualisation of identity- re-imagination, reconfiguration and re-negotiation of sexual identities
  • Changing deployments of power and identity as cultural productions
  • Inseparability of race, class, ethnicity, and gender

The issues I listed above become clearer when Black educated women are used as a unit of analysis. There is an anecdote, in the South African context in particular, that a relatively high number of educated Black women with Masters and PhDs find it difficult to be romantically involved with and/or eventually marry South African men. This, we are told, is a matter of choice informed by, amongst others; the desire to be independent; to exercise one’s agency; to engage in a radical redefinition and critical questioning of what is ‘normal’ and what is socially accepted; to challenge dominant strands of thinking and existing matrices of power that marginalize women in novel ways and that often work antithetically to women’s empowerment; to demonstrate strong aversion of marginality and established hierarchical-patriarchal systems or social organization and ordering; and lastly, to champion fairness and equality. It is also however important to note that marriage amongst Black South Africans of all classes is at an all time low, hovering under 30% at present (see Mark Hunter’s “Love in the Time of AIDS: Inequality, Gender, and Rights in South Africa”, 2010)

But explanation for the educated class point tells us that for this specific category of women, singleness is a deliberate choice, while for others it’s an unfortunate and an unintended eventuality. Some of our educated sisters in South Africa do not get married because they claim to be exercising their agency. Because of all the societal constraints and restrictions on her choices, your educated South African sister decides to ignore the whole social acceptance business and follow her own path. She chooses to stay single, since in the absence of ‘reliable and like-minded partners, it is so easy and rewarding to do so.

To borrow Kate Bolick’s [i] mind, one might also argue that, perhaps, our educated sisters do not get married because:

[they face] a radically shrinking pool of what they consider to be ‘marriageable’ men — those who are better educated and earn more than they do.

In other words, these women find it difficult to find mates they could “look up to” or “admire”. For them, they don’t think they could build a life with a man who is less educated than they are–a man that cannot rise up to their intellectual expectations  level. Some of them are afraid that if they do marry, they will end up with unsatisfactory matches. In such rare cases when they decide to marry, quite often than not, Black South African women decide to date outside their designated pool, they decide to “fish in different lakes, seas and oceans altogether” (other African countries outside South Africa or elsewhere in the world). Those who still prefer to get married see interracial relationships and cross-continental dating as happy mediums through which they can assert themselves, while also protesting against the expected and usual practice of marrying someone from one’s backyard or village.

More so, we are told that our educated black sisters hardly date the South African brothers because they want to be independent and do not need a man to make it in life. These women seek to challenge the widely held notion that men should be the only source of income and the head of a household by virtue of  their ability to generate household income. To them, that idea is passé’- it has reached its sell-by date. They believe that they should not be put in a place where they have to make difficult decisions of choosing between career and motherhood.  These women are rightly aware of traditions and existing patriarchal practices and expected gender roles in a society, and instead wish to change the rules the patriarchal family order.

In our modern-day societies dominated by patriarchy, educated women are standing up against marginality, re-negotiating gender roles, redefining and reconfiguring spaces and sites of exclusion while creating inclusive societal spaces of interaction, redrawing the boundaries of societal norms and shifting the centre and periphery. Our educated women in South Africa do not want to have their bodies to enter our public discourse both as sites of abuse, discrimination and violence. Rather, they want to engage in knowledge and cultural production that will give rise to new epistemologies that would allow women to rewrite their history through their bodies and identities, walking towards a future of equality within the context of multiculturality, multiethnicity and globalization that makes up our present society.

To be continued!

*Thembani Mbadlanyana is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum / BLF regular contributor.


Thembani Mbadlanyana

Thembani Mbadlanyana is a Researcher in the Corruption and Governance Programme at the Institute for Security Studies.

One Response to Educated Black Women: modern society’s ‘outliers’

  1. You have made some very poignant observations about the struggles of women, especially in the African context.
    However, what I find troubling about your analysis, is that even in our efforts to challenge the status quo and ‘renegotiate gender roles’, women cannot seem to escape the trappings of patriarchy. I find the perception that ‘women seek men who earn more’ necessarily self-defeating. It implies that women intrinsically seek to be tamed and to be dominated by their partners.

    Women’s identities, power and influence is still being perceived against that of men. If we are to advance as a human race and fully acknowledge, respect and embrace the humanity of a woman; then her talents, her capacity and strength should not be viewed as the ‘other’. So what if she earns more? If the man is secure enough in his sense of self then neither he nor the woman in his life should feel the need to go to such great lengths to protect his ego.

    Each of us is unique and there should be no inherit assumption that the man should earn more, be the leader and excel professionally simply because if his gender.

    “The more a Hard Man, a man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is”, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – We should all be feminists!

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