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Trophy wives no more

As women's learning and earning powers have increased, marital motivations have shifted

Aristotle and Jackie Onassis on their wedding day in 1968. “I can’t very well marry a dentist from New Jersey!” the former first lady told Truman Capote. Aristotle and Jackie Onassis on their wedding day in 1968. “I can’t very well marry a dentist from New Jersey!” the former first lady told Truman Capote. (Associated Press/File)
By Tina Cassidy
Globe Correspondent / May 10, 2012
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When Jacqueline Kennedy married shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis in 1968 on his private Aegean island Skorpios, tongues wagged from Greece to Greenwich.

The story line was simple: She married him for money, and he married her for effect. She was, after all, arguably the most famous and beautiful woman in the world, and he was one of the richest, three decades older than she. Whether there was love, or even just affection, or whether this was about mutual security of some kind, it all seemed irrelevant. When her friend Truman Capote asked her why she became Mrs. Onassis, she said, “I can’t very well marry a dentist from New Jersey!”

In fact, Jackie perfectly fit the traditional definition of a trophy wife in a marriage that ended with Aristotle Onassis’s death in 1975, when Jackie was just 45.

Although there have been plenty of high-profile relationships since then that have fit into the trophy category — Marla and then Melania Trump; Ted Turner asking Jane Fonda to stop working — times have changed.

Take last year’s marriage of Cassandra Huysentruyt Grey, also known as the Princess of Bel-Air, the pretty, second wife of Paramount Pictures Chairman and CEO Brad Grey (they are 34 and 54, respectively).

Turns out that Huysentruyt Grey has a self-proclaimed Napoleonic ambition. She also may have the talent to be her own studio mogul — a West Hollywood fashion studio that serves as a style incubator for the rich and famous. A recent headline in the New York Times declared, “Don’t Call Her a Trophy Wife.”

Is this the new wave?

The recession and the increase in women’s education levels are two major factors feeding a shift in cultural norms since Jackie wore knee-length Valentino and a ribbon in her hair for her Greek Orthodox wedding ceremony. Today, to have a wife (even if she is the second or third) who is smart, has a job, and perhaps even a business plan or a PhD, is now highly valued. It means that the man is not a conspicuous consumer, marrying just for the arm-candy factor. It means that he does not want to debase himself by telegraphing to the world that the only reason he’s with a gorgeous, much-younger woman is because of his money. It means that he is evolved.

And it means that she doesn’t need his cash — she has her own.

Women began outpacing men in educational achievement in 1992 and by 2009, nearly 30 percent of working wives were out-earning their husbands, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women are already receiving the majority of degrees conferred, and the idea of a woman “marrying up” is becoming statistically unlikely.

“That’s just not an option,” according to Liza Mundy, the author of a biography of Michelle Obama as well as a more recent book called “The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family.” “Women don’t expect to marry up and can’t marry up. Now that we have more college education than men, marrying up is laughable, and even women marrying laterally is becoming more difficult.”

Furthermore, it appears that men don’t want the obligation of supporting a so-called trophy wife.

An early inkling of this came in 2001 with a University of Texas study, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, which looked at 50 years of data that asked men what characteristics they found most admirable in a mate. The study shows that males used to rank high such things as domestic skills and virginity. By the late 1990s, those answers had plummeted while “financial prospects” rose to the top of the desirability list.

Meanwhile, single childless women in their 30s are out-earning men, according to a 2010 report by James Chung of Reach Advisors, who spent more than a year analyzing data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. And those women expect a potential partner to do domestic chores — and be handsome.

“Everyone wants a well-educated, good-looking partner,” Mundy says. “The dumpy and bald [older rich man] is no longer acceptable to women — they are bringing their own money to the table. . . . It may be no accident that a lot of women aren’t getting married, they’re just being single moms. That kind of social mobility through marriage is definitely not available to women in the way that it once was.”

A 2011 paper in Psychology Today on the rise of the “power bride” boils down to this revelation: “A woman’s ability to hold a steady job [now matters] more than her age, previous marriages, maternal status, religion or race. Men were more willing to marry women with more, rather than less, education than they themselves had. A wise move, since women eclipse men at the same rates at which they attain bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and the number of women pursuing higher education continues to steadily climb.”

The Psychology Today article also noted that a Match.com poll found that 48 percent of men (and an equal percentage of women) reported dating partners who drew the same income as they did.

To flip around the trophy concept, there may be a new definition for women wanting to “have it all.” They may want to have a successful and/or powerful partner, but not at the expense of their own success or power.

Which brings us back to Jackie. After Aristotle Onassis died in 1975, she began to forge what would become a longtime relationship with Maurice Tempelsman (also a successful businessman). She never got remarried — but she did get a job.

Tina Cassidy, a former reporter and editor at The Boston Globe, is the author of the new book “Jackie After O: One Remarkable Year When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Defied Expectations and Rediscovered Her Dreams.” She can be reached at authortinacassidy@gmail.com.

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