Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Jessica Bennett (00:02):

In June 1986, Newsweek Magazine published this cover story that read, “If you’re a single woman, here are your chances of getting married.” The crux of the article was that, due to an alleged man shortage, things weren’t looking great for women north of 35, and in fact, if you were a woman over the age of 40, you were more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to get married. The article pierced the zeitgeist so intensely that even seven years later, it was a plot point in Nora Ephron’s Oscar-nominated romantic comedy, Sleepless in Seattle.

Clips (00:39):

There are a lot of desperate women out there looking for love.


Especially over a certain age.


You know it’s easier to be killed by a terrorist than it is to get married over the age of 40?


That’s not true. That statistic is not true.


That’s right, it’s not true, but it feels true.

Jessica Bennett (00:51):

The terrorism line was indeed not true, and Newsweek would even go on to print a retraction. But nevertheless, that urban myth endured, married by 40 or end up a sad old maid. I’m Jessica Bennett.

Susie Banikarim (01:12):

And I’m Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (01:14):

This is In Retrospect, where each week we revisit a cultural moment from the past that shaped us.

Susie Banikarim (01:19):

And that we just can’t stop thinking about.

Jessica Bennett (01:22):

Today we’re talking about that sensational 1980s cover story from Newsweek, but we’re also talking about the enduring myth it tapped into, that of the desperate single woman. This is part one.

Susie Banikarim (01:41):

So Jess, we started with a clip from Sleepless in Seattle, which is obviously a classic rom-com and Nora Ephron movie. And the reason we’re talking about that movie is because it references this absurd claim that a woman over 40 is more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to get married. So remind me, where did this idea come from?

Jessica Bennett (02:03):

Right. Okay. So it didn’t come from Nora Ephron, and it is not true, by the way.

Susie Banikarim (02:09):

Good, good.

Jessica Bennett (02:10):

Where it came from was this 1986 cover story in Newsweek Magazine, which was one of the most read and respected magazines of its era. And that story would send American women into a panic.

Susie Banikarim (02:22):

No wonder I would feel panicked if someone told me I was more likely to get killed than married.

Jessica Bennett (02:26):

Right. And so the fact that seven years later when this movie comes out, Meg Ryan and Rosie O’Donnell, those are the voices you hear in the clip, are still talking about it gives you some sense of just how firmly this idea cemented into the American psyche.

Susie Banikarim (02:43):

Yeah, I do remember this really being part of the zeitgeist. So what made you choose this moment to talk about?

Jessica Bennett (02:48):

So for starters, I am a woman newly over 40. And while I did ultimately get married, I have a lot of complicated feelings about the subject.

Susie Banikarim (02:56):

Yes, as do I.

Jessica Bennett (02:58):

And also, as you know, we both have a personal connection to Newsweek, the magazine where this story ran. This was where I began my career. It’s where you and I would meet working a decade later, and it’s where when I did start working 20 years after this story ran, people were still talking about it. Literally in the year 2006 when I was a junior reporter at Newsweek in one of my first jobs, the magazine decided to write another cover story about that now debunked cover story for the 20th anniversary of the cover story.

Susie Banikarim (03:30):

Really, it’s wild.

Jessica Bennett (03:32):

But I think also at its core, I’m fascinated by this story because it’s a microcosm in a lot of ways for the way that the media tends to take these subtle or sometimes not so subtle jabs at women for the way that Hollywood and so much of our popular culture still sends this message that a single woman is something to be afraid of or ashamed of. And ultimately for how that silly little statistic, which was proven wrong in the 1980s, can still sometimes feel very real or it has resonance even four decades later.

Susie Banikarim (04:07):

So where should we begin in terms of breaking this down?

Jessica Bennett (04:10):

So I think we should start with a little context. To understand the impact of that article, you have to understand the place that Newsweek held in the culture in the 1980s. Newsweek was one of the classic news magazines back when people still paged through magazines physically. And the internet was a dial-up modem that took 25 minutes to connect and got disconnected every time your mom would pick up the phone to call someone. Newsweek was in every dentist and doctor’s office. I don’t know if you remember that.

Susie Banikarim (04:39):

Yes, I do remember that.

Jessica Bennett (04:41):

It was in classrooms at schools. It was displayed on actual newsstands alongside other magazines, such as US News and World Report and Businessweek and Time, and all of these magazines, many of which no longer exist, where you would eagerly go to actually see the week’s headlines.

Susie Banikarim (04:59):

Actually, the crazy thing is when I went to Iran for the first time, where my family is from and my mom has lived until pretty recently, I remember the only English language news I could find because that was pre-internet was a Newsweek Magazine.

Jessica Bennett (05:12):

That’s so interesting. And that’s the thing. It held a lot of weight. And when I was in college, and I think even high school, working at Newsweek was my literal dream job. That’s where I wanted to work. I wanted to be a journalist. And where would an aspiring ambitious journalist want to work? They would want to work a Newsweek Magazine.

Susie Banikarim (05:28):

That makes sense. I also grew up loving Newsweek. I remember I used to as a very small child, like eight or nine years old, I used to read it to my parents’ friends as a party trick. My dad would call me out from bed and be like, “Show everyone how you read Newsweek.” And honestly, I think I just read the ads. I didn’t really know what I was reading, but I wanted to be like my dad and he read the magazine so I would flip through it and read it too.

Jessica Bennett (05:52):

Right. And so Newsweek was always, and I don’t know if you would remember this from that time, I think I only learned it later, but it was considered to be the scrappier more progressive of the two. And I remember when I started there, that was a point of pride. Newsweek had run a cover story about the AIDS epidemic long before most people had heard of it. It was ahead of its time on subjects like gay marriage. And so while Newsweek and Time were known for covering really serious international affairs and politics, obviously, they were also known for these splashy covers on social trends, like the kind of stories that, for me anyway, that I dreamed of writing. Fun fact, you might remember this, I used to run the Newsweek Tumblr.

Susie Banikarim (06:34):

Oh, I do remember that.

Jessica Bennett (06:36):

So I have this whole collection of Newsweek covers, many of which are just incredible. I have this image of the cover story about Anita Hill, which has this iconic image of her during those hearings. And it says a special report on sexual harassment. And then the headline is “Why Women Are So Angry.”

Susie Banikarim (06:56):

Maybe they’re angry because getting sexually harassed, it seems like the question answers itself.

Jessica Bennett (07:01):

There’s also another cover I have saved. It has Sally Ride on it with the title “Space Woman” when she became the First American woman to go into space. That was this iconic cover that I still remember.

Susie Banikarim (07:13):

It feels a little bit like a superhero name, so there’s that.

Jessica Bennett (07:15):

Yes, completely. And then there are the more hilarious ones. There’s one that I post every June for pride from 1983 with this incredible closeup image of two women against this hazy school photo backdrop. One is wearing a velvet body suit and the other is in pearls and a jean jacket. And the cover just says in giant block letters, “Lesbians.”

Susie Banikarim (07:41):

With an exclamation point, like “Lesbians!”

Jessica Bennett (07:43):

It doesn’t. I just always refer to it as having an exclamation point, but it’s giant block letters. And then I think the subtitle is “What are the Limits of Tolerance?” But it’s just an incredible cover and says a lot about the 1980s.

Susie Banikarim (07:58):

So I guess lesbians were coming out of the closet. What else was going on in the world at that time?

Jessica Bennett (08:03):

Yeah, so the 1980s is key here. One, feminism had made great strides. The Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s was in full force. You now have more women in the workforce. Labor participation has risen from 42% in the early 1970s to nearly 60% by the late 1980s. So women are dramatically more visible. There were all of these representations of working women, single women in film and on television. You had examples like Charlie’s Angels. You had depictions of single working women like Mary Tyler Moore, and you had magazines like Cosmopolitan and Glamour, the more women’s magazines, that were starting to elevate or talk about this single woman lifestyle.

Susie Banikarim (08:51):

That’s funny. It’s like the classic image of the working mom in her boxy business suit and her white sneakers with her heels and her purse. It feels very much of a certain kind of era where we started to see women emerge in this very public way.

Jessica Bennett (09:06):

And on the heels of that, this is three years after that lesbians cover came out, the story about women’s chances of getting married hits news stands.

Susie Banikarim (09:14):

Okay, I really want you to get into the article, but can we please talk about this cover? It’s so bad.

Jessica Bennett (09:21):

It’s hideous. It features a full page line graph, basically, that looks like it was made on a, I don’t know, 1980s early Apple computer. It’s red, white, and blue, and it has this dramatic drop to this graph. And that is what they want you to see. It’s going down and down and down along the headline, “If you’re a single woman, here are your chances of getting married.”

Susie Banikarim (09:45):

It’s funny because this is like the original clickbait. It’s like a version of the curiosity gap. If you’re a woman and you’re seeing this cover, you’re going to definitely pick it up, if you’re worried in some way, you have some anxiety around getting married, and then you’re going to be horrified by the answer. It’s very clear the answer is not good if marriage is in your sights.

Jessica Bennett (10:06):

Yes, yes. It’s like your odds of finding love are in free fall, and thus, due to the conventional wisdom of the 1980s, your life is in free fall.

Susie Banikarim (10:16):

Well, also, it’s just this idea that if marriage is the goal, if you’re 40 already, there’s no recourse. It’s not like they’re saying there’s something you could do differently. So it’s just like, “All right, pack it in, ladies. You’re going to have to go home without a mate.”

Jessica Bennett (10:30):

Right. And that’s exactly what the article did. It made women seem helpless and the prospect of finding a mate hopeless. So the article itself opens with a woman who can’t stop hearing about this so-called man shortage. Her mom is calling her to warn her about it. Her sisters are all talking about it. It’s on the news. It’s everywhere.

Susie Banikarim (10:49):

Can you just imagine how many women got calls from their mom about this? So many.

Jessica Bennett (10:53):

And it goes on to explain that there was this study out of Harvard and Yale, so of course this sounds very formal, these are great institutions, that, “Confirmed what everybody suspected all along, that many women who seem to have it all good looks, good jobs, advanced degrees and high salaries will never have mates.”

Susie Banikarim (11:16):

The horror. First of all, is it that they will never have mates or they will never have male mates because it really does seem to be focused on men, so their lesbian cover must not have come soon enough.

Jessica Bennett (11:28):

Oh my God, exactly. And in fact, there are multiple headlines for this story, but the headline, once you open it up and are reading it in the middle of the magazine is, “Is it Too Late for Prince Charming?” So clearly we’re talking about princes here. Now, the article itself was written by four women and two men, some of whom were still at Newsweek when I was there two decades later. And as we’ve mentioned, it was based on data from a Yale and Harvard study, which made basically everyone believe it.

Susie Banikarim (11:56):

Yeah, it automatically gives it a sense of credibility.

Jessica Bennett (11:59):

And this is how the data was presented, that if you were a white college educated woman over 30, you had a 20% chance of ever getting married for the rest of your life. By age 35, your odds would drop to 5%. And by 40, and this is where the famous infamous line comes in, a woman is “more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to get married with her chances of marriage for the rest of her life at 2.6%.”

Susie Banikarim (12:28):

Okay. I have so many questions about this because I just don’t believe there was ever a time in this country where the likelihood of getting killed by a terrorist was at 2.6%. That can’t be correct.

Jessica Bennett (12:42):

No, totally. And you’re right, it wasn’t. It would turn out that this line was meant to be taken humorously, I guess, and to be totally hyperbolic. But of course, why would anybody think that coming from this serious, well-respected news magazine that had six reporters who were reporting this story?

Susie Banikarim (12:57):

Yeah, it’s interesting because I feel like at that time, especially in the 80s, there was more airplane hijackings. So I guess most people would’ve been thinking about that versus what we think about now, which is 9/11. But back then, I guess the fear of being hijacked was a much more common fear that people had.

Jessica Bennett (13:15):

Yeah, absolutely. And like you said, I don’t think you’d ever use that phrasing today, but I think the article was tapping into not only that terrorism anxiety, but this other anxiety that was bubbling up at the time about women’s place in the world.

Susie Banikarim (13:29):

So, okay, more women are working, but what’s going on in their personal lives? I feel like the 80s was still very much a classic hetero family vibe.

Jessica Bennett (13:38):

Yeah, definitely. The nuclear family was still intact, but it’s also shifting. So in 1986 when the Newsweek article comes out, less people are getting married, more people are divorcing. That’s becoming more common. And those who still are getting married are doing so at a later age than before.

Susie Banikarim (13:56):

So that’s a good thing though, right? Because doesn’t research show that every year you wait to get married, the chances of divorce drop?

Jessica Bennett (14:03):

Yep, it does, which is why getting married later is actually better. And the other thing is, women had more freedom at this time when it came to relationships. This was post birth control pill. It was post sexual revolution. Women were in various roles pushing against traditional expectations.

Susie Banikarim (14:20):

Honestly, all of this sounds like good news to me.

Jessica Bennett (14:25):

Yes and no. Good for women, but the thing was society was getting uncomfortable with it.

Susie Banikarim (14:30):

Right, so I guess people are questioning whether or not having more women in the workforce is a good thing, or does it come at the expense of a nuclear family? I guess it really fundamentally gets back to that thing we always talk about, which is can women ever “have it all?”

Jessica Bennett (14:45):

A few more lines from the article that I must note, it talks about a major shift for the institution of marriage, yes, true. It noted that many women no longer need husbands for economic security, also true, and that they no longer need them for sex, LOL. It also mentioned women in their 30s, “facing biology’s ticking clock,” which, side note, we will discuss in a future episode of this podcast.

Susie Banikarim (15:10):

I just am really trying to figure out how they decided women didn’t need men anymore for sex. Is that because a vibrator? It’s such a weird thing to put in a magazine, I’m sorry.

Jessica Bennett (15:20):

This is after the sexual revolution. I think the point is that you didn’t need to marry for sex. You could have sex before marriage.

Susie Banikarim (15:26):

Oh, you could just have sex freely without it.

Jessica Bennett (15:28):

You didn’t need a husband for sex, not you didn’t need men for sex.

Susie Banikarim (15:31):

That makes more sense.

Jessica Bennett (15:33):

So you also didn’t need men for sex, but I don’t know that they had discovered that at that point.

Susie Banikarim (15:37):

Yeah, it sounds like they discovered masturbation, honestly.

Jessica Bennett (15:40):

Well, and maybe that is also true to some extent. I think masturbation was being normalized in the sexual revolution, yada, yada, yada. So also, there’s this funny quote from a New York therapist who says that, “Everybody was talking about it and everybody was hysterical.” But of course, them quoting this therapist in this article makes everyone all the more hysterical because they’re making it such a big deal.

Susie Banikarim (16:03):

Yeah, you really can picture this, right? All these women going to their therapists, sitting in the therapist’s office sniffling with a tissue like, “I’m never going to meet someone to marry.” It’s such a funny quote, but it evokes a thing that must really have happened.

Jessica Bennett (16:18):

100%. So I actually called up E. Jean Carroll, who as you probably know, is the woman who successfully sued Donald Trump for sexual assault, which was a case I covered. But I remembered as I was working on this research that she had been dispensing romantic advice at the time this article came out.

Susie Banikarim (16:35):

I loved Ask E. Jean. She was the longtime advice columnist for Elle Magazine. I read it religiously.

Jessica Bennett (16:41):

And she wrote that column for 30 years. And when I spoke to her, she told me that even years later, women were writing her letters about that Newsweek line.

  1. Jean Carroll (16:54):

It had been seared into the brains of… What am I talking about, women’s brains? It had been branded on the uteruses of every single woman from sea to shining sea.

Jessica Bennett (17:10):

By the way, E. Jean Carroll was 42 at the time this story ran.

  1. Jean Carroll (17:13):

Oh, Jessica, I can remember where I was, where I was, when this Newsweek story hit. I remember I was with my friend Barbara Shailor. Now, that name rings a bell with you because she was one of the 20th century’s most devastatingly beautiful and charming women. Barbara Shailor was one of the great leaders in the labor movement in this country, and fought day and night for women to receive equal pay among machinists. Even Barbara Shailor was worried about getting married. Here’s the thing, I think Candace Bushnell said, “It struck terror in the hearts of women.” Of course, I never disagree with Candace because she’s always right about everything. But I think what it did was it struck women dumb. It took us decades to figure out that the thing was a lie and that it was stupid, and that why would you worry about getting married anyway? Your whole life can’t be wrapped around a man. And also, it didn’t occur to anybody that, of course, you could marry a woman if you wanted.

Susie Banikarim (18:23):

Okay, so even smart clued in successful women like E. Jean Carroll are shocked, but also shaken by this article and study. I can imagine knowing what I do about the media that this was probably a feeding frenzy, right?

Jessica Bennett (18:37):

Oh, absolutely. And to be clear, while Newsweek did invent that terrorism line, they were not the first or the last to cover this study itself. Like Phil Donahue, who hosted a popular daytime talk show at that time, had done a whole segment on it before Newsweek. People Magazine had put a giant photo of your former boss, Susie, award-winning broadcast journalist Diane Sawyer, along with three other famous women of that era with the headline, got this, “Are These Women Old Maids?”

Susie Banikarim (19:07):

Wild, and also the subhead is a Harvard, Yale study says that most single women over 35 can forget about marriage, which I have to tell you, as someone who worked for Diane Sawyer, she is a very attractive woman. She’s an attractive person, and I don’t think her chances of getting married were ever a real problem. But also, 1986 is literally the year she met Mike Nichols, who would go on to be her husband. Mike Nichols was one of the best filmmakers of our time. He made The Graduate. Diane Sawyer was fine.

Jessica Bennett (19:38):

In the immediate weeks and months following that Newsweek story, this story was really everywhere. It wasn’t just People Magazine, it was ABC, it was CBS. And even two years later, this is pretty remarkable, it was a subject of a special report on PBS, the Nightly News, which called the study the “Infamous Spinster Report.”

Clips (20:01):

Otherwise known as the Yale, Harvard study of marriage patterns in the United States. It showed that the odds of a college educated woman over 35 getting married were about the same as being kidnapped by martians. Suddenly, the women of the post-war generation were thrown into a panic. They’d always intended to marry, to have a family, but they wanted to develop their own identities first, to avoid all the traps that had ensnared all those millions of smart women who loved men, who hated them for loving them too much. But now the game was over and they’d lost.

Susie Banikarim (20:37):

The whole thing is amazing and just feels so 80s, but the writing is also just so crazy to me. To be clear here, your odds of getting kidnapped by martians are zero. So she’s basically just saying, “Ladies, you’re out of luck. Time to put on your spinster outfits and go knit in your living room or something.”

Jessica Bennett (20:56):

With your cats.

Susie Banikarim (20:56):

With your cats, yes. So we are talking about this wild cover story from the 80s that Newsweek ran about women being very unlikely to get married if they’re not married by the time they’re 40. It sounds like the media really ate up the story, but was there pushback? Were there people who were saying, “This is crazy,” even at the time?

Jessica Bennett (21:29):

Yes, there was a great deal of pushback and memorably, one of the greatest bits of pushback came from Susan Faludi. Now, Susan Faludi, I think you probably have read her book, her 1991 blockbuster bestseller, Backlash. It’s a feminist classic, but at the time, she was 27 years old and a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, and she criticized this article. She was one of the first earliest and harshest critics of it, and it was actually this article that would inspire her to write that book.

Susie Banikarim (22:01):

I remember reading Backlash at Barnard. It was a huge book.

Jessica Bennett (22:04):

And what she would do is she dug into the study itself and really damned its methodology. She argued that it was flawed, that it was used to beat women over the head for having pursued education and jobs. And her broader argument was basically about how women face these competing narratives. Essentially, on the one hand, during this time, women were being told they could have it all. They were being told they’d made it, that the fight for equality had been won and that they were so equal, they didn’t even need additional rights. But at the same time, they’re being depicted by pop culture and the news media as hysterical, melting down, depressed, burned out, desperate to be married, and unfortunately, facing an infertility epidemic and a man shortage on top of everything else.

Susie Banikarim (22:56):

Honestly, it feels like for women in this era and maybe in every era, it’s like you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. You have to pursue a career, but you also have to find a way to get married. There’s no breaks here.

Jessica Bennett (23:08):

And here’s the thing, that terrorism line, the core message that educated career focused women risk spending their lives alone, it stuck. Starting in 1989, it is mentioned in When Harry Met Sally. This is also a Nora Ephron film. This stars Meg Ryan, and you may remember if you’ve seen this, the part where she’s weeping to Billy Crystal about her ex who didn’t want to marry her.

Clips (23:31):

Though I drove him away and I’m going to be 40.






Someday, like in eight years. It’s so crazy.

Jessica Bennett (23:43):

Right. So again, that looming dead end, terrifying number of 40. So that’s When Harry met Sally. But then four years later, you have Sleepless in Seattle. This is 1993. And in Sleepless, the line is not mentioned only once, but actually twice. First in the scene we heard at the top, which is also Meg Ryan, she was in everything in that era. And she’s playing a journalist who’s talking with her editor, played by Rosie O’Donnell about basically what story she should do next.

Susie Banikarim (24:10):

Yeah, I remember this because they’re basically talking about this sad widower whose son has called into a radio show saying he needs a new wife. And thousands of women have called into volunteer.

Jessica Bennett (24:23):

Yes, exactly. And then one of Meg Ryan and Rosie O’Donnell’s colleagues jumps in to say…

Clips (24:28):

There are a lot of desperate women out there looking for love.


Especially over a certain age.


You know it’s easier to be killed by a terrorist than it is to get married over the age of 40?


That’s not true. That statistic is not true.


That’s right, it’s not true. But it feels true.


It feels true because it is true.


There’s practically a whole book about how that statistic is not true.


Calm down. You brought it up.

Jessica Bennett (24:46):

And so then later in the movie, this comes up again. This time Tom Hanks is at home in Seattle having dinner with his sister and her husband, and they’re talking about all the women who called into that show. And the husband is adamant that those women must be absolutely desperate.

Clips (25:02):

Just because someone is looking for a nice guy, it doesn’t make them desperate.


How about rapacious and love-starved?




It is easier to be killed by a terrorist than to find a husband after the-


That is absolutely untrue.

Jessica Bennett (25:14):

Nora Ephron, she’s clearly doing something. She’s read Faludi. She’s not just regurgitating that line. She’s debunking it again and again, and it’s worth noting, this is a bit of a deep cut, that Nora Ephron actually began her career at Newsweek. She was a mail girl in the 1960s, but then smartly and quickly quit when she learned that women at the time were not allowed to be writers at Newsweek.

Susie Banikarim (25:37):

Okay. I don’t want to get off track because obviously this is something you’ve told me before, but I feel like you have to explain that women weren’t allowed to be writers at Newsweek in the 60s.

Jessica Bennett (25:48):

Okay. Yes, how much time do you have? But TLDR up until the 1970s, women were told when they started working at Newsweek that they could be a mail girl, they could be a researcher, they could be a reporter, but they could not have bylines because women were not writers at Newsweek. This would lead to a landmark gender discrimination suit in the 1970s by the women who worked at Newsweek against the magazine. This would go on to spark all sorts of similar lawsuits. It basically changed the way journalism was done. This probably paved the way for us as writers and editors.

Susie Banikarim (26:24):

That’s such an interesting detail. But we know she’s right, because now we’ve established that it was wrong a million times. Newsweek did eventually retract this article, right?

Jessica Bennett (26:35):

Yes, 20 years later. There’s a few things to note, but the first one is that the study, as it was published in the article, was not actually a published study. It was a working paper, which yes, sometimes reporters report on working papers, but that basically means a paper from an academic institution that’s in its early stages. It had not yet been put out in a peer reviewed journal.

Susie Banikarim (26:57):

That does seem like a very significant detail.

Jessica Bennett (27:00):

Totally significant. And also by the time the study was in fact completed and published in an academic journal, it would ultimately become two studies. The first one, about Black women’s marriage rates, which were and are much lower than white women. And this was mentioned in the Newsweek article, but almost as a passing aside. And then the second study was about educated white women, which is what that terrorism line is actually referring to, and which is what became the focus of the article.

Susie Banikarim (27:29):

But did the data hold up? Was it actually true?

Jessica Bennett (27:31):

The data did not hold up. The problem was that they were looking at 40 year olds and making predictions for 20 year olds at a time when there were huge shifts in marital attitudes and behavior. So as a result, the statistics would later be challenged by a separate demographer in the US Census Bureau, who would ultimately calculate that 30 year olds actually had a much higher likelihood of marrying. And for 40 year olds, it was not 2.6%, it was 17% to 23%.

Susie Banikarim (28:05):

Well, you know what’s funny is I actually read the retraction, and didn’t the majority of the women who were featured in the original story end up getting married, like 80% of them?

Jessica Bennett (28:14):

Of course they did, of course they did.

Susie Banikarim (28:16):

It’s so silly. And then how did the terrorism line get in?

Jessica Bennett (28:19):

So that’s the other part of this. The way that this often worked in news magazines at that time is that you would have multiple reporters working on a single story. This was before the internet. So you would have someone in San Francisco, you would have someone in Los Angeles, you’d have someone in Chicago, they would all be interviewing women about this story. And then because you weren’t emailing and everything wasn’t digital, you weren’t slacking, you would pick up the phone and you would call-

Susie Banikarim (28:44):

I guess you could fax it.

Jessica Bennett (28:45):

Yeah, you could fax it, and they probably were sometimes, but you had these people I think they were called shepherds at the time. We still had them when I began at Newsweek. And their job was to basically pick up the phone when a correspondent would call from some far away place and type down their notes, which they would live, read to you, and then you would give those notes to whomever the assigned person was in New York, who is going to take everything and write up the article. So what was then revealed was that the terrorism line was basically a funny aside, written down by one of the handful of reporters who worked on the story, and it was sent in some sort of memo from the Newsweek San Francisco Bureau to the main office in New York, and the writer in New York inserted the line to the story.

Susie Banikarim (29:35):

So it was meant to be funny?

Jessica Bennett (29:36):

What they said in the retraction article was that yes, they thought it was funny, and they thought it would be clear that it was hyperbole. It wasn’t intended to be taken literally, but obviously it was taken literally.

Susie Banikarim (29:49):

Well, so this actually explains why they don’t cite any data on how likely you are to be killed by a terrorist, because they thought it was very obvious that it wasn’t real data. That’s fascinating. So just to recap what you’ve just told me is that Newsweek had concocted this sensational line, and the data behind it was also flawed.

Jessica Bennett (30:08):

Yes. Multiple problems with this story.

Susie Banikarim (30:11):

It’s a good thing they issued a retraction.

Jessica Bennett (30:14):

I guess, except who remembers any of this? The point is this thing stuck in the zeitgeist, that original flawed statistic and the line about terrorism stuck in the zeitgeist. It stayed there. It was repeated again and again and again, and nobody remembers any of these details except for, of course, the smart people who will be listening to our podcast.

Susie Banikarim (30:33):

So what’s wild about this is that I actually was watching something recently, this show on Netflix called Firefly Lane, which is cheesy, but I watch, and they did a whole episode about this Newsweek cover.

Jessica Bennett (30:47):

They did?

Susie Banikarim (30:48):

Yeah, one of the characters is an anchor, is a local news anchor, and she leads rhe nightly news with this statistic, and then someone else on the staff, an older woman challenges her. And so throughout the episode, she realizes that, in fact, the statistic isn’t true. But the idea that this stuck with people for so long that a writer on this show that just got made last year remembered it is fascinating.

Jessica Bennett (31:14):

It’s fascinating and it’s telling. I think part of what it’s showing us is that as silly as some of these moments seem now, or as much as they feel like a blip from the 1980s, they’re teaching us something really important.

Susie Banikarim (31:28):

Yeah, really about the time we grew up in.

Jessica Bennett (31:31):

With this story in particular, as I was doing the research, I started to realize this wasn’t even really about marriageable women or “man shortage” or an age of expiration or even about undermining magazine articles or sexist editors. This was about women’s place in the world more broadly.

Susie Banikarim (31:51):

Right, it was about putting them in their place.

Jessica Bennett (31:53):

Exactly. And I think to understand that you have to look at what was happening in the 1980s and what was happening in the 1980s is the ton of pushback to all of these societal gains. So you can see it and hear it in this time a lot in the way conservative leaders talked about feminism and working women. This was of course the Reagan era. So Ronald Reagan, who had proclaimed feminism of “straight jacket” for women, he also introduced the term welfare queen as part of efforts to demonize poor Black single mothers. And so while Americans are navigating the consequences of the baby boom, women’s liberation, sexual revolution, Reagan is basically reeling against feminism.


And so when this Newsweek article comes out in 1986, there are some feminists and people at large who see it as part of this backlash. Taken within the context of all of these other things, it was part of this conservative push against progress. So I actually called up Susan Douglas. She is a professor of communication and media studies at the University of Michigan. She studies this subject. She looks at gender representation in media, but she also happened to be 36 at the time that this article came out and recently married so lucky for her, she didn’t have to panic.

Susan Douglas (33:14):

No advance in feminism occurs without an almost instantaneous backlash against it. By the 1980s, you had more women in the workforce than ever before. You had women postponing marriage and childbirths because they wanted to get established in their careers, and this was a threat to the patriarchal order. And so you get this ridiculous story terrorizing women who if they’re 32 and they’re not married, they are doomed to a life of loneliness. Let’s also remember between 1975 and 1985, you had a revolution in single mothers entering the workforce. They entered the workforce because feminism had given them permission to do so, and they entered the workforce because they had to because they had to support their families, and they wanted to work. And they did this in the face of non-existent or utterly crappy childcare, against all kinds of prejudice.


It transformed the American family. And so some of this threat was not just for women who were never married. This was also, oh, so you divorced your husband because you, a liberated woman, thought that you were unhappy. Well, too bad for you. Good luck finding number two. No advance in feminism occurs without an almost instantaneous backlash against it.

Jessica Bennett (35:02):

That’s Susan Douglas again. It’s interesting to hear her talk about what was happening politically in the 80s as women are gaining more power at work, and then knowing that this Newsweek cover lands right in the middle of it.

Susie Banikarim (35:14):

Right, like a ton of bricks.

Jessica Bennett (35:15):

So you can look at these things as isolated, or you can, as Faludi did, see them as interconnected. You can draw this straight line from that article and the so-called man shortage to what you’re seeing in the culture around that time. Susan Faludi talks in her book, Backlash, about how in film and television, we begin to see this shift away from characters that are scrappy working heroines toward these sad sacks desperate to get married. She cites Sally Field in the movie Surrender.

Clips (35:47):

You know what? If I’m not married again by the time I’m 41, there’s a 27% chance I’ll end up a lonely alcoholic.

Jessica Bennett (35:54):

But I’m even thinking of later, like the Bridget Jones types.

Clips (35:58):

I have two choices to give up and accept permanent state of spinsterhood or not. In this time, I choose not.

Jessica Bennett (36:08):

And then if they aren’t sad sacks desperate to get married, these once independent women are depicted as straight-up murderous bunny boiling sociopaths. Of course, I’m referring to Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction.

Clips (36:27):

What are you doing, huh? Showing up in my apartment?


Well, what I’m supposed to do. You won’t answer my calls. You change your number. I’m not going to be ignored, Dan.

Susie Banikarim (36:32):

Right, like it’s not enough that the women are pathetic. Their career ambitions have to actually turn them into dangerous and deranged characters.

Jessica Bennett (36:41):

Yeah. So basically this myth, this lie about these desperate, sad single women has become accepted truth in the culture.

Susie Banikarim (36:50):

It definitely does. And you still see that myth, this desperate single woman playing it on TV. It makes me think of The Bachelor, which has been running on ABC for 20 years, in which I occasionally still watch. And the whole premise of that show is that it’s this group of women who are pretty young, in their early 20s, and they’re so desperate to get married and have the approval of a man. And God forbid, occasionally there’s one who’s in her 30s and they’re so mean to her like, “You’re the worst. You’re so old and desperate. What are you even doing here?” So I don’t know how much progress we have made. It’s hard to say.

Jessica Bennett (37:30):

I think we’ve made some. The Bachelor’s a certain kind of television.

Susie Banikarim (37:35):

Oh, do you mean super trashy? Because I love it.

Jessica Bennett (37:37):

But that said, I’m still sitting here trying to rack my brain for an example of a show that doesn’t end in a relationship. Honestly, if those listening can think of anything, feel free to send us your thoughts. But okay, Susie, I feel like we need to pause for a moment and spend a little time talking about us.

Susie Banikarim (37:59):


Jessica Bennett (38:00):

Because I couldn’t help but wonder, are we desperate single women?

Susie Banikarim (38:03):

Good Carrie Bradshaw reference?

Jessica Bennett (38:05):

Thank you so much. I’ve been practicing, but I think this is actually a good spot to pause for our listeners before we get real personal. So we’ll pick this up again with my bad Carrie Bradshaw impression, but also both of our views are complicated views on marriage, in part two.

Susie Banikarim (38:28):

This is In Retrospect. Thanks for listening. Is there a cultural moment you can’t stop thinking about and want us to explore in a future episode? Email us at [email protected] or find us on Instagram @inretropod.

Jessica Bennett (38:43):

If you love this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen. If you hate it, you can post nasty comments on our Instagram which we may or may not delete.

Susie Banikarim (38:53):

You can also find us on Instagram @jessicabennett and @susiebnyc. Also check out Jessica’s books, Feminist Fight Club and This is 18.

Jessica Bennett (39:02):

In Retrospect is a production of iHeart podcast and The Meteor. Lauren Hansen is our supervising producer. Derrick Clements is our engineer and sound designer. Sharon Attia is our researcher and associate producer.

Susie Banikarim (39:14):

Our executive producer from The Meteor is Cindi Leive. Our executive producers from iHeart are Anna Stumpf and Katrina Norvell. Our artwork is from Pentagram. Additional editing help from Mary Dooe and Mike Coscarelli. Sound correction and mastering by Amanda Rose Smith. We are your hosts, Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (39:33):

And Jessica Bennett. We’re also executive producers. For even more, check out inretropod.com. See you next week.