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By now, you may be familiar with the firestorm around Susan A. Patton’s recent advice to female Princeton college students. After attending a professional women’s conference on campus, Ms. Patton, a Princeton alumna, shared a message to the women of Princeton University, a message that likely was not covered in the conference.  Ms. Patton wants these young female college students to start locking down their future husbands now.

In an editorial published in The Daily Princetonian (which you can’t see, because it’s been removed from the Web), she wrote:

Forget about having it all, or not having it all, leaning in or leaning out—here’s what you really need to know that nobody is telling you. . . For most of you, the cornerstone of your future and happiness will be inextricably linked to the man you marry, and you will never again have this concentration of men who are worthy of you.

She went on to say:

Men regularly marry women who are younger, less intelligent, less educated. It’s amazing how forgiving men can be about a woman’s lack of erudition, if she is exceptionally pretty. Smart women can’t (shouldn’t) marry men who aren’t at least their intellectual equal. As Princeton women, we have almost priced ourselves out of the market. Simply put, there is a very limited population of men who are as smart or smarter than we are. And I say again—you will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of you.

Of course, once you graduate, you will meet men who are your intellectual equal—just not that many of them. And, you could choose to marry a man who has other things to recommend him besides a soaring intellect. But ultimately, it will frustrate you to be with a man who just isn’t as smart as you.”

I don’t know where to begin, but I’ll start with that I think Ms. Patton is right, in the narrowest of senses. If getting married is the primary goal, right now, of these Princeton women, then they should start auditioning for husbands now.  But it shouldn’t interfere with their education and postgraduate plans. 

But I believe Ms. Patton is wrong in so other many ways:

  • She assumes that where a man goes to school is an indication of what kind of husband he’ll be.  She doesn’t say much about what other qualities in men these young women should look for—like maybe a man that is kindhearted and caring—and I wish she had. I would hope that where a man went to school is not at the top of the list.
  • Having an “intellectual equal” is probably a good thing in a relationship.  It does help to have similar sensibilities in this way. I just don’t know that going to the same school means you’re intellectual equals.  Suppose, for example, he’s a legacy admission, and is just a mediocre thinker but got in because of family connections? Then what? Believe it or not, she might, some day, come across a graduate of a (lesser?) state university who is her intellectual equal. That could happen.
  • I would like her to stop scaring young women into thinking that “they’ve almost priced themselves out of the market.” This is dangerously close to suggesting that they ‘dumb down’ in order to be desirable, and this makes me sad. And mad.
  • But where I really take issue is this sentence: “The cornerstone of your future and happiness will be inextricably linked to the man you marry.”  I really beg to differ.  Of course I know that choosing the right husband can be a pretty good factor in having a good life for a woman, but is it “the cornerstone of her future and happiness?” Is this the 1800s? Happiness comes in so many forms to women both married and unmarried, and honestly, I believe each woman is responsible for her own happiness.  Do you remember Elizabeth Gilbert, author of  Eat Pray Love?  She actually had a nice husband and still wasn’t happy. It happens. I say: “You are the cornerstone of your future. Your happiness will be inextricably linked to being true to yourself.”  In fact, Toni Morrison, a former Princeton professor, may have said it best in her best-selling novel Beloved. When Sethe tells her man, Paul D, that he is the best thing that has ever happened to her, he responds, “You are your own best thing.” My hope is that every young woman, Princeton graduate or not, takes this message to heart.

I’d like to ask Ms. Patton to make one small amendment to her advice, if she’s insistent on sticking to it: At least insert the word “first” in there, as in “your first husband.” You see, according to the Pew Research Center, people who marry young are more likely to divorce than those who marry at older ages.  A 2012 study by McKinley Irvin, a family law firm, corroborates this.

It may indeed be true that there will never be another time in life when a young woman has access to so many men, but I would just like them, at this precious time in their life—to think broader (e.g., travel, graduate school, getting to know herself), not narrower (e.g., uh-oh, gotta find a husband).

But what do I know? I wrote a book, The Spinsterlicious Life, advising unmarried women on how to have a pretty nice life while they’re single. I guess those who don’t follow Ms. Patton’s advice may be “doomed” to follow mine.

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  • Tobysgirl April 4, 2013 at 9:36 am

    An excellent post, thank you. I saw Ms Patton on TV and wondered about her divorce (she seemed like a bitter divorcee), which I never would have done if she hadn’t made her thoughts public.

    As far as meeting one’s intellectual equal, I think it would be more honest to say meeting one’s class equal. If it is important to a young woman that she marry a man of the same upper-class status, then perhaps Ms Patton’s advice is not so bad, though it would seem that a young woman of this class will have plenty of opportunity to meet similar men during her career.

    I do not equate Princeton, Harvard, etc, with intelligence or attainment of intellectualism. One never knows where or when one will meet someone with a truly active, critical, creative brain. Let us not confuse intellectualism with academia or a particular economic status.

  • ellen sue spicer-jacobson April 4, 2013 at 9:26 am

    I can see both sides of this argument, but in the end, I agree with the statement, “You are your own best thing,” which I learned after my 30-year marriage ended in divorce and I was single for 13 years. My second marriage has proved to me that my first marriage was worse than I had thought, so I am not sure I would have felt that had I stayed single. Spinsterlicious sounds like a good option. Thanx for voicing your thoughts so clearly.