You've heard the terms before: Gold digger. Trophy wife. They most often apply to women whose social or economic status is "lower" than their husbands.' You might even know of a few couples where these terms could apply.
But this act of a woman vying for "higher status" when marrying also has a scholarly name and a long history. It's called hypergamy (hī-pûr′gə-mē). And while the Oxford dictionary defines hypergamy in neutral terms — "the action of marrying or forming a sexual relationship with a person of a superior sociological or educational background" — social scientists explain it in a more gendered way.
"[Hypergamy] is when men marry women of lower status than themselves," says Christine Schwartz, professor in the department of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Or in other words, when women marry men of higher status, whether it's related to education, income or occupation.
Scholars have also looked at marrying up in other ways, for example geographically. In the introduction to the journal article "Cross-Border Marriages: Gender and Mobility in Transnational Asia," author Nicole Constable explains global hypergamy as "the movement of brides from more remote and less developed locations to increasingly developed and less isolated ones."
History of Hypergamy
We might not know just how far back the tradition of men partnering with women of lower status than themselves goes. Hypergamy can be seen as a natural response to women's inability in early history to earn a living and "marriage was the only way a woman determined her status in life," Kay Hymowitz wrote for the Institute for Family Studies.
What we do know is the term hypergamy likely has origins in the Hindu tradition of women wanting to marry men from higher castes. It was first used in 1881 in the "Panjab Castes," a book based on the census report of the Panjab province of British India by Sir Denzil Ibbetson. It describes a situation in which a man sought to marry his daughter to a "member of a tribe" superior to his, anthropologist T. Mohanadoss explains in the article "Hypergamy and Its Inherent Contradictions." Mohanadoss writes that hypergamy is associated with "the assumption that man is superior to woman." Interestingly, while this type of marriage raises the status of the bride-giver — the father — it also admits his inferiority to his in-laws.
But if all women are striving to marry up, hypergamy must eventually lead to a situation where the women at the top of the social ladder won't have anyone to marry, and the men at the bottom won't have women to marry either. That's what scholars in the 1970s found anyway, Mohanadoss writes.
But that's where hypogamy comes in.
Hypergamy vs. Hypogamy
It does happen that men marry women of a higher status, and women "marry down." There's a name for that too: hypogamy. The sociology dictionary defines it as "a marriage between a male of low status to a female of higher status." There is even a word for marriage between people with similar characteristics and statuses. Did you figure out that it has to be homogamy?
What's changed since that 19th-century anthropological study in the Panjab? Are we more homogamous today? Or are women still focused on marrying up?
In many countries, the practice of hypergamy has shifted since the earlier research, and part of the reason has to do with the changing roles of women in education and the workplace.
"We see that all over the world, this isn't true in every case, but the general pattern is that there's much less hypergamy than there has been in the past," says Schwartz, who contributed to an article on this topic, "The End of Hypergamy: Global Trends and Implications."
In plenty of societies, it is now more common for women to be more educated than men. That's been the trend in the United States since around the 1990s, but it wasn't really recognized until the early 2000s. But women in the United States now have higher average education attainment than men.
That means women sometimes have little choice but to marry men with less education than they have. In fact, according to Margarita Chudnovskaya and Ridhi Kashyap, who wrote the academic journal article "Is the End of Educational Hypergamy the End of Status Hypergamy? Evidence from Sweden," in the United States and most European countries, "the prevalence of educational hypogamy (women 'partnering down') now exceeds that of educational hypergamy (men 'partnering down')."
Add to that the 2020 finding from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that women make up more than half of the non-farm labor market in the U.S., and it might seem like hypergamy is on its way out, at least in America.
But there is another factor to consider, and that is economic — a gender pay gap to be more specific. "It is true that in the United States it's now more common for a woman to have more education than her husband than the other way around, but it's still less common for women to outearn their male partners," says Schwartz.
For couples married between 2005 and 2009, just 30 percent of wives made more money than their husbands, she says. "There is a definitely a difference in the U.S. at least between education and income."
Chudnovskaya and Kashyap's Swedish study found that in various types of couples, even when the woman had higher education, occupational prestige and social class, the man was still a higher earner. "One reasonable guess is that men's income advantage is due not to the persistence of hypergamy but rather to the gender wage gap, which sits at about 14 percent in Sweden," writes Hymowitz.
Today, educational hypogamy is more common, but hypergamy still rules in the financial realm.
With all this gender-specific hyper- and hypogamy, where does that leave same-sex or non-binary couples? Schwartz says we can still talk about these types of relationship statuses.
"It's just when one partner has higher status than the other," she explains. And research has shown that members of same-sex couples tend be more different from each other in terms of education.
In her article "Cruising to Familyland: Gay Hypergamy and Rainbow Kinship," sociologist Judith Stacey says that hypergamous relationships happen more frequently among "those who breach sexual norms" than among heterosexuals and "gay men can cruise their way to creative, multicultural permutations of hypergamous kinship."
Do Hypergamous Relationships Last?
"There is a perception that still exists that successful women who are highly educated and highly paid won't be able to find partners," Schwartz says. But societies around the world have changed. In response to these demographic trends, increasingly relationships are forming where women have higher status than their partners, and studies are showing that these marriages do last.
A study published in 2018 used Belgian census and register data for 458,499 marriages contracted between 1986 and 2001. It found that neither hypogamy nor homogamy was associated with higher divorce rates. It was educationally hypergamous marriages — those in which the husband was more highly educated than the wife — that had the highest rates of divorce.