Susan Patton, author of an inflammatory letter to the editor of the Daily Princetonion last week, has been called a snob, a eugenecist, an anti-feminist, and clueless. I don’t deny that she got many things wrong in her letter – the advice to Princeton female undergraduates to find a Princeton man now and hold on for dear life lest they be relegated to marriages to lesser men (or women, God forbid) chief among them. But the experience that she cites at a breakout session of the Women and Leadership conference held on the Princeton campus in February rings true:
I participated in the breakout session afterward that allowed current undergraduate women to speak informally with older and presumably wiser alumnae. I attended the event with my best friend since our freshman year in 1973. You girls glazed over at preliminary comments about our professional accomplishments and the importance of networking. Then the conversation shifted in tone and interest level when one of you asked how have Kendall and I sustained a friendship for 40 years. You asked if we were ever jealous of each other. You asked about the value of our friendship, about our husbands and children. Clearly, you don’t want any more career advice. At your core, you know that there are other things that you need that nobody is addressing. A lifelong friend is one of them. Finding the right man to marry is another.
In the course of researching my book, Hard to Get: 20-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom, I’ve also found that young women are hungry for advice and information on how to build a relationship with a true partner and sustain a rich personal life. There’s a dearth of such information and advice and young women yearn for it.
And still, like many giving advice to younger women, Patton takes it for granted that the young women in her panel have their professional success taken care of, and that it’s separate from their personal lives. But young women know, as does Sheryl Sandberg, the ur-businesswoman, wife, and mother of the moment and author of Lean In, that the most important career decision a young woman will make is whom she will marry.
And yet even Sandberg, who makes such an important proclamation, one that is widely shared by other women at the height of their professions, gives short shrift in her book to advice and guidance on how to choose a partner and build a relationship before a woman has children.
In one paragraph in her chapter titled “Make your partner a real partner,” Sandberg provides only a hint of the kind of advice the young women I’ve spoken with seek. She writes:
When looking for a life partner …, date all of them: the bad boys, the cool boys, the commitment-phobic boys, the crazy boys. But do not marry them. The things that make bad boys sexy do not make them good husbands. When it comes time to settle down, find someone who wants an equal partner. Someone who thinks women should be smart, opinionated, and ambitious. Someone who values fairness and expects or, even better, wants to do his share in the home. These men exist and, trust me, over time, nothing is sexier (p. 115).
I couldn’t agree more. And yet, for the women I’ve spoken with, it feels complicated both to want and to find someone who wants to be an equal partner. I know that Lean In is not meant as a relationship manual, but it can make the choice of a partner seem a bit mechanical. Check, check, check the boxes, and there you have it. In real life, desire is a bit more complicated, and generally involves some ambivalence. Giving up the desire for the bad boy or the commitment-phobic boy doesn’t always happen so easily.
Those desires may have served their purpose for young women in their twenties - allowing them to delay the formation of ongoing commitments and pursue their careers wholeheartedly. But what happens when young women want to build a relationship?
The suggestion to lean in is necessary but not sufficient for young women who feel inhibited from wanting a relationship with a real partner. As I wrote last month in the Atlantic, women in their twenties sometimes feel ashamed about their desire for a relationship, and so are unlikely to invest time and energy in their relationships to the same degree that they invest in their professional endeavors. For young women who, albeit sheepishly, want to develop relationships that will support their professional success, more help is needed in discerning their desires and pursuing them whole-heartedly.
The real question young women would like to ask superstars like Sheryl Sandberg (and trailblazers like Susan Patton, a member of Princeton’s first graduating class that included women) is not just “How do you succeed professionally?” but also “How do you build a personal life that supports your career?”