<B>Is cohabitation all it's cracked up to be?</B> To shack up, or not to shack up: that is the question for today's single girl.

Whether 'tis nobler to wait for marriage or join the majority of women and plunge into cohabitation is a tricky question, indeed.

According to author Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, the benefits of cohabitation for women are, at best, "equivocal." For men, of course, it's an entirely different story.

In her intriguing new book, <B>Why There Are No Good Men Left</B>, Whitehead explains that young women are on uncertain ground when it comes to such urgent matters as love, courtship and marriage. An upheaval has occurred in the established mating system, and many young women are clueless about how to proceed. Despite the flippant title of her book, Whitehead doesn't aim to offer advice for the lovelorn, but instead tries to analyze the evolving social mores that have left large numbers of highly educated women unmarried into their 30s and beyond.

In 1960, Whitehead reports, only 1.6 percent of all women ages 25-34 were college-educated singles. ("In the entire country at the time, there were only 185,000 such women.") Today, 28 percent of all women in that age group are college-educated singles; the subset now numbers a whopping 2.3 million women.

College campuses have almost totally shed their role as places to find a mate. Dating on campus is virtually dead, abandoned in favor of outings in "unpartnered packs," and "romantic love . . . has largely been leached out of college relationships," Whitehead reports. After college, women devote most of their youthful energies to careers, postponing the search for a husband and cycling through numerous "low-commitment relationships." By the time marriage becomes a priority, the good men are few and far between.

All this brings us back to that thorny question: Should a marriage-minded woman live with a boyfriend before tying the knot? Probably not, according to Whitehead. While women tend to see living together as a step on the road to marriage, men view it as "just one way of being single." Cohabitation brings women no closer to wedded bliss, Whitehead argues, and gives men many of the benefits of marriage without making a commitment.

But, hey, what's wrong with staying single? And if you're way past the dating game yourself, why should you care about the growing throngs of the never-married? The answer is twofold. As Whitehead puts it, "society has an interest in the formation of lasting marital unions," especially those that involve children. And, on a more personal level, the vast majority of young women say they want to get married. For many of them, the search for a spouse becomes a frustrating and confusing experience.

The tremendous changes in the mating system during the past 30 years have gone largely unnoticed by social scientists, Whitehead says. Her highly readable account of the single woman's plight corrects this oversight and offers an interesting new perspective on women's lives just in time for Women's History Month. Packed with fascinating statistics and compelling personal stories, Whitehead's book is recommended reading not only for young women, but also for their families, friends and possibly even their future spouses.

Other books of interest on women's issues and women's history include: I <I>Glory, Passion and Principle: The Story of Eight Remarkable Women at the Core of the American Revolution</I> (Atria, $24, 320 pages, ISBN 0743453301) by Melissa Lukeman Bohrer examines the lives of some unforgettable females and their contributions to America. Profiles of Abigail Adams, Phyllis Wheatley and Mercy Otis Warren, among others, are featured in this thoroughly researched, fascinating volume.

l <I>Mismatch: The Growing Gulf Between Women and Men</I> (Scribner, $25, 240 pages, ISBN 0684862522) by Andrew Hacker, asserts that it's getting harder for women and men to get together. Hacker proves his point by citing cultural and socioeconomic factors ranging from education (women have more of it) to sexuality (homosexuality becoming a more viable alternative).

l <I>Couldn't Keep it to Myself</I>(Regan, $24.95, 351 pages, ISBN 006053429X) collects the heartwarming and heartwrenching stories written by female inmates in York Correctional Institution during a workshop led by Wally Lamb, best-selling author of <I>I Know This Much Is True</I>.

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