Princeton Is for Husbands? Icky, Retro, and Proud of It!

Who needs career advice when you can have a husband

Posted Apr 01, 2013

Have you heard about “Advice for the young women of Princeton: the daughters I never had”? In the letter published in the Princeton student newspaper, Susan A. Patton, Princeton alum and mother of two Princeton undergrad men, tells the Princeton undergrad women to get married, now! Find a man at Princeton, where the intellectual pickings are good. Hurry up, because as you get to your second and third and fourth year at Princeton, there will be fewer men to choose from.

Let me quote instead of paraphrasing:

“For most of you, the cornerstone of your future and happiness will be inextricably linked to the man you marry…”

I read a lot of creepy advice aimed at single women (and men), but this is one of the skin-crawliest.

By now, Patton’s advice has been roundly ridiculed and critiqued. At New York magazine, Maureen O’Connor noted that Patton is “pushing women — and women alone — to define themselves by their spouses and to make life choices according to an outmoded understanding of romantic attraction.” Critics have recognized that not all women want to marry men, and not all singles want to marry at all! (Now that’s progress.) They have made lots of other important points as well.

What struck me about the letter, beyond the general ickiness factor, was Patton’s smugness. She’s retro and proud of it. Always has been. Consider, for example, this story she told about herself:

“When I was an undergraduate in the mid-seventies, the 200 pioneer women in my class would talk about navigating the virile plains of Princeton as a precursor to professional success. Never being one to shy away from expressing an unpopular opinion, I said that I wanted to get married and have children. It was seen as heresy.”

In response to the sh*t-storm she kicked up, Patton doubled down: “…yes, this is exactly the advice I would give my daughters,” she said. She’s a smug married (well, smug divorced, and wishing she were married -- to a Princeton man), and delighted to be getting all of these opportunities to flaunt her sense of superiority. She seems to revel in getting under people’s skin, kind of like a troll.

As one who is interested in the intersection of social science and journalism, I was also taken by the way that Patton established her “facts.” At a break-out session at a Women and Leadership conference at Princeton, where Patton and her friend of 40 years were speaking, Patton said of the Princeton women in attendance:

“You girls glazed over at preliminary comments about our professional accomplishments and the importance of networking…Clearly, you don’t want any more career advice.”

Patton perceives the women (she calls them “girls”) as glazing over at the discussion of careers, so of course the “clear” conclusion is that they don’t want career advice. (Never mind that they are attending a Women and Leadership conference.) It is Patton’s own little world; she makes the rules and decides what everyone else is interested in.

There is so much to mock in Patton’s letter. Yet I did like one thing she said, that (as far as I know) has gotten hardly any attention at all. That’s the value of lifelong friends. I think it is harder to find friends after college. There are a zillion online sites making profits from promising to link you to The One, in that traditional, narrow, romantic sense. There are fewer options for finding friends.

College may be a particularly promising place for developing the kinds of deep friendships that have the potential to endure for a lifetime. You see each other day after day, year after year, in a setting conducive to wide-ranging discussions, from the profound to the mundane. Plus, friendships don’t abide by all the sex-role silliness in romantic life about whether you “should” be looking for someone older or smarter or more attractive.

So, yes, value your friendships. Learn all that you can from your coursework and all of the other opportunities of collegiate life. Also learn that you don’t need to be looking for a husband (or wife) if you don’t want to – in college, or ever.

[Notes. (1) Thanks to Natalya Anfilofyeva for helping me access the link to the Patton letter when the site of the student newspaper seemed to have crashed. (2) My latest elsewhere includes “Single in the Foreign Service: Heather Steil blogs from Afghanistan.” (3) Over at my personal blog, I’m continuing to create collections of links by topic. The latest are “What do we know about the experiences of singles around the world?” and “Singles in the military and Foreign Service: Voices and perspectives.”]