Who would think that a letter advising Ivy League college women to think about marriage and children while they’re still in school would launch a global firestorm? But it has. Late last week, The Daily Princetonian published a letter to the editor from Susan Patton, a career coach from the Princeton Class of 1977. Patton advised today’s female Princetonians to mine the treasure trove of brainy male colleagues for a husband. Her advice created such an outcry that it shut down the student newspaper’s website.
Part of what she said was this:
“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. Here’s what nobody is telling you: Find a husband on campus before you graduate. ... 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.”
Patton’s remarks have created a global dialogue, if not a verbal war, around whether it’s beneficial for highly educated women to put family before career. Patton says she’s only speaking to a small and elite audience of women attending Princeton, Harvard, Yale and other top-quality educational institutions. For her troubles, she has been called anti-feminist, elitist and worse.
Some of Patton’s advice is solid. But some of it is downright old-fashioned, seemingly offered by someone unfamiliar with — or unaccepting of — the ways in which marriage has evolved during recent decades. She also bases her counsel on some pretty rash assumptions about Ivy League men and women that — in my experience as an Ivy Leaguer — have not proven true.
I don’t think it’s bad to remind college-age women who want families to start thinking about that earlier. Some women remain so career-focused throughout their 20s and 30s that they later look around and realize they have neglected their personal lives. If it weren’t a truism, it would not have spawned a female cartoon character dressed as a career woman looking at her watch and saying, “I forgot to have a baby!”
But it is also true that few women focus solely on career. Even when working in demanding, high-power jobs, women I’ve known spend plenty of time looking for mates. Just as many find their intellectual equals after college as during school. A 2010 Match.com study of 11,000 people revealed that most singles meet their spouses in “work/school.”
Patton’s view of Ivy League men as being able to “marry anyone,” as she puts it, is fairly stilted and dated. She’s referring to the idea that such men often marry women younger or less educated or less accomplished than themselves. She fails to take into account that no amount of trying by a woman — Ivy League or otherwise — will change the tastes of a man who prefers someone younger or less intellectually challenging.
The good news is that young people tend to view potential mates through a wider lens in today’s culture. Women are marrying younger men — men of all colors and even men less educated or accomplished than themselves — and creating happy, lasting unions. These are unions that some people of Patton’s generation might have considered inappropriate.
It is also true that if an Ivy League woman marries her intellectual equal, there’s no guarantee the marriage will last. Settling down in one’s early 20s can be a tricky business, because most people change and grow so much during and after that time. As a conversation starter, Patton gets an A-plus. But as a giver of advice, she gets a C.
Bonnie Erbe, the host of PBS’ “To the Contrary,” writes this weekly column for Scripps Howard News Service. Email email@example.com.