By Eric Levin
March 31, 1986 12:00 PM

Spinster. The word conjures up a vivid image in the mind’s eye—that of a sharp-tongued, gray-haired lady who is wizened and alone. No children to visit on Thanksgiving. No grandkids to knit booties for. No kindly gent with whom to share those sunset years. Not a pretty picture, is it? But look at the ladies pictured on these pages. Look at Donna Mills, Jackie Bisset, Teri Garr. They don’t bear the faintest resemblance to anybody’s idea of an old maid, yet they are women who have yet to traipse down the aisle and who, according to a new study that is raising hackles all over the land, probably never will.

The study in question was conducted by a pair of Yale sociologists, Dr. Neil Bennett, 30, and graduate student Patricia Craig, 26 (who, by the way, are single), and Harvard economist Dr. David Bloom, 30 (who is married). The brains behind the brouhaha would like to make one thing perfectly clear. All right, two things. First, as Craig insists, “We didn’t do this study to make people unhappy.” Not that you could tell. At their offices at Yale, they’ve received a swarm of letters, some angry and others questioning their motives and speculating on their personal relations. Second, as Bennett adds, “We are making absolutely no value judgments.” In other words, nobody’s calling anybody an old maid.

The gist of the 37-page study is this: Bennett, Craig and Bloom contend that college-educated white women who have not married by their 25th birthday have only a 50 percent likelihood of marrying thereafter. (Chances are slightly higher for women with no higher education and slightly lower for black women.)Those who turn 30 without having wed have only a 20 percent chance of ever doing so. At age 35 the likelihood drops to 5 percent. And if they haven’t tied the knot by 40, the number who eventually will is “perhaps 1 percent.” The statistics were based on 1982 census information from 70,000 households and other government surveys.

“If you say these statistics without explanation,” Craig observes, “it can make women hysterical.” For instance, 91 percent of college-educated women born in the mid-’30s got married; only 78 percent of those born in the mid-’50s are expected to marry. There are many reasons for this dramatic drop. Cohabitation is socially acceptable, and since the legalization of abortion, “shotgun weddings” are a thing of the past. Today’s woman is more career-oriented and, as a result, more financially secure. Bennett’s interpretation of the statistics is that “as you get into higher age groups of those women who haven’t married, more and more of them don’t want to marry.”

One need only glance around to see that some of the most visible and successful women in the country are showing, as Donna Mills says, that “there’s no stigma attached to a woman not being married anymore.” Hill Street’s Betty Thomas seems unconcerned about closing in on 1 percent marriage ability. “Fine with me!” she says. “I’m not a great believer in marriage anyway.”

One thing that complicates the marriage market for educated women is their newfound economic clout. From 1960 to 1982, to cite just one example, women’s representation in schools of medicine, law and architecture jumped from 5 percent to 32 percent. Men have not necessarily made a corresponding jump in their attitudes when they go spouse-shopping. “There’s a lot of lingering sexism,” says Bloom, “and that intensifies when you talk about very successful women.”

Celebrity ups the ante even more. “I don’t know that men are actually turned off by my success,” says Brooke Adams, 37, whose credits include Days of Heaven and TV’s Lace, “but I’ve noticed they appear just plain scared of me. They may think, ‘She’s famous and wouldn’t want to go out with me.’ The fact is, I probably would.”

Acknowledging that “really terrific men are either married by age 30 or they’re not going to be,” Adams has no objection to dating younger men. That’s one recourse more women in their 30s and 40s may be seeking. Since many men their own age still “tend to want to marry younger women,” says Bloom, more women “are starting to marry younger men.”

“Men who are 30 and under have been raised mostly by working women,” says 30-year-old Ana Alicia, the Mexican-born actress who pouts and plots as Falcon Crest’s Melissa. “They’re less confused about relationships with career women than men over 30.”

In many women, particularly those with high-profile careers, the very idea of marriage induces a state of exquisite ambivalence. “I’m really a walking contradiction,” admits Alicia, a 20-percenter. “I believe in marriage, and yet I have absolutely no fear of not being married.” If marriage can wait, romance cannot. “I love romance—it’s magic, the spice of life,” she says. “But choosing a man to have a tempestuous romance with is far different from finding a man to marry.” Different, and a lot easier. “I’m fiercely independent and driven,” she claims. “I don’t feel any need to be a baby-sitter to my man. There are just not that many men who are secure enough in themselves to let me be all that I am.”

Ambivalence is something cartoonist Cathy Guisewite understands so well she has based a career on it. As the creator of the daily cartoon strip Cathy, syndicated in more than 400 newspapers, she admits, “I make my living through expressing my insecurities out loud. Nobody can read my work and think I’m all that cool.” One backhanded benefit of that, she allows, is that at least men don’t tremble in her presence.

Two years ago Guisewite drew a strip that summed up her views on matrimony. After a breakup, Cathy’s exasperated boyfriend tells her, “You beg me to come back and I come back. I threaten your space, you throw me out. You don’t know what you want.” Rhapsodizes Cathy: “At last, a man who really understands me!” Contemplating her 5 percent chance of getting to the altar, Guisewite says with a sigh, “It’s very demoralizing to think that my options are not wide open anymore. But, then again, I could be one of the few. I think there’s at least an outside chance.”

Indeed. Several well-known women have beaten the odds. Candice Bergen married Louis Malle, 47, when she was 34. Bette Midler didn’t find commodities trader Harry Kipper, 35, until she was 38. Elizabeth Hanford, now Secretary of Transportation, was 39 when Sen. Robert Dole, 52, took her as his bride.

One prominent achiever who doesn’t think the study tolls for her is Chief Justice Rose Bird of the California Supreme Court. “I’m an eternal optimist,” she says. “I haven’t married because the right man hasn’t asked me. I really don’t take any of these surveys seriously. I take each day as it comes.” For Justice Bird, her ideal will be “someone who’s courtly and judicious, who would follow the letter of the law, but with some spirit.” An ’80s Felix Frankfurter? No, “someone like Woody Allen. Now there’s a man who’s courtly and judicious.”

The desire to have children used to spur many women to marry early, but Donna Mills doesn’t think you need a ring to legitimize offspring. “Children don’t give a hoot if you’re married,” says Mills. “It’s far better to have a set of parents who live together and stay together than a forced marriage followed by a quick divorce.” Brooke Adams concurs. “I don’t see the difference between getting married and living together as long as the father is around,” she says. “Of course, I’ve been told that having a man around is like having two children.”

Which raises a possibly consoling reminder for women over 30 who may never toss the bouquet. If marriage is such an enviable institution, why do half of them end in divorce these days? Even given the 50-50 chance of a successful union, one should proceed with caution. As Cathy Guisewite facetiously observes, “Being deliriously contented could be just awful.”