Michelle Obama may have become an archetypal African-American female success story — law career, strong marriage, happy children — but the reality is often very different for other highly educated black women.
They face a series of challenges in navigating education, career, marriage and child-bearing, dilemmas that often leave them single and childless even when they’d prefer marriage and family, according to a research study recently presented at the American Sociological Society’s annual meeting in San Francisco.
Yale researchers Natalie Nitsche and Hannah Brueckner argued that “marriage chances for highly educated black women have declined over time relative to white women.” Women of both races with postgraduate educations “face particularly hard choices between career and motherhood,” they said, “but especially in the absence of a reliable partner.”
And there’s the rub. As noted in a recent Sexploration column, contrary to old media reports, most educated, professional women who want to marry can and do marry. But the picture is less bright for high-achieving black women because “marriage markets” for them have deteriorated to the point that many remain unmarried, the researchers found. Since these women also feel pressured not to become single mothers, they often go childless as well, the researchers found.
In the study, Nitsche and Brueckner used data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey of 50,000 households dating back to the 1970s to tease out data points on race, gender, education, marriage and fertility.
Among black women with postgraduate educations born between 1956 and 1960, the median age at which they gave birth for the first time was 34 years old. This was about the same as it was for white women in the same demographic. But once white women reached their 30s, many more of them did give birth, often more than once. Many black women did not. The rate of childlessness among this group of black women rose from 30 percent for those born between 1950 and 1955, to 45 percent for those born between 1956 and 1960.
The rate of childlessness does moderate somewhat in highly educated black women born between 1961 and 1970. In this group, 38 percent have remained childless.
Beyond the personal interests of individual women, the trend is significant because “in terms of American society, this is one additional obstacle” to the broadening of the black middle class, Brueckner said. Fewer highly educated black people having children means that they cannot pass on those advantages and knowledge.”
This defeats the goal of affirmative action, argue some demographers. The idea behind assuring that blacks had access to higher education and graduate school was that after a generation or so, African-Americans would reach a kind of achievement parity after generations of suffering educational and career restriction. But if black women, who comprise 71 percent of black graduate students, according to the census data, do not have children, the rate of achievement reaches a kind of familial dead end.