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Princeton letter: One more salvo in the how-women-should-live war

Susan Patton, a 1977 Princeton University graduate, advised female Princeton students to find a husband now, while they’re in school.

Princeton: crawling with smart, husband-worthy men?
CC/Flickr/Nouhailler

Any of you out there sick of “leaning in”? Well, put on a flexible flak jacket and get ready to face the latest salvo in the war of words about how women should live their lives.

stanik portrait
Mary Stanik

The most recent artillery was launched by Susan Patton, a 1977 Princeton University graduate and mother of two (male) Princeton students. Patton recently wrote a letter that was published in Princeton’s student newspaper. In it, she advised female Princeton students to find a husband now. While they’re in school. And to start searching in their freshman year.

Why? Well, in part because “men regularly marry women who are younger and are less intelligent … ultimately, it will frustrate you to be with a man who just isn’t as smart as you.”

Patton also wrote about the ample supply of intelligent, ambitious men available at a school such as Princeton and basically said Princeton women likely wouldn’t find such quantities of smart, husband-worthy men at any other point or place in their lives.

As you don’t even have to imagine, Patton has been accused of the most expected things. She’s been called an elitist snob, a goblin from a 1950s nightmare where boy-crazy fembots obtained higher education primarily to earn M.R.S. degrees, and someone so out of touch with the realities of today’s Facebook-addicted, hookup-conscious young people that her Princeton degree should be torn from the wall of her Upper East Side of Manhattan apartment.

Why the surprise?

To me, it’s more than amusing to hear Patton called an elitist snob. Yes, she probably is a bit of an elitist. Why are people surprised that someone who had the intellectual and/or financial and/or family connections to obtain an Ivy League education and now lives quite comfortably on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (a place not exactly rife with low-cost housing) would encourage those of the upper crust to mate with those cut from the same loaf?

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Long story, very short: Mitt Romney isn’t the only person in this country who might have thought there are “those” people and “our” sort of people. Whether one likes it or not, America is still a class-conscious society.

That said, there are many other issues one could sort out of Patton’s assertions that are not stirring up as much debate, angry or otherwise, as they might deserve.

One of the first things I thought is that maybe, in a decidedly officious, stay-with-your-own-kind fashion, Patton wanted to tell young women that early marriage might spare them (assuming these young people are not gay, just one detail Patton overlooked) the pain and disappointment of being a cog in a series of hookups. Or perhaps that youthful marriage sidesteps the “talks” about lengthy, sometimes tortured romantic histories that can be sources of misery for people who have been around the block, the country and even the world a few times. If you get married at 21 or 22, there is no serious past girlfriend or boyfriend of seven years to worry about friending you on Facebook and then asking you out for a reminiscent cocktail. 

Or maybe …

On that same note, maybe Patton thought that if people marry early enough, stay married, and don’t mess around, they can spend the time their unmarried peers are using to either find someone to date or just hook up with for a few hours to, well … work on the careers their quality educations permit them to pursue.

Or was Patton trying to express dismay with the lack of enthusiasm the millennials, the children of the much-divorced baby boomers, have for marriage? The 2010 Census figures indicated only 20 percent of people ages 18 through 29 were married. In 1960, 52 percent of that age group was married.

Could it be that Patton wanted to encourage young women to marry early so they might have children early enough to take advantage of youthful energy and avoid difficult, expensive and sometimes marriage-wrecking infertility issues? Or that early marriage, and subsequent early childbirth, might permit young women (and men too) to take time for childrearing while the career train is still in the entry-to-junior-level station? 

Patton didn’t discuss these issues, and I doubt she has all the answers for them either. The thing is, none of us, Ivy League educated or not, probably has the right answers for everyone else. Much less ourselves.

The thing about being young

One thing I know about finding someone when one is very young is that one is still very young. I remember being enraptured with one guy when I was about 21. When I finally met him at a beer-soaked party, he blushed profusely and excused himself after a few minutes of rather intelligent conversation about politics. Though we were but University of Minnesota students, a lack of brains was not the problem. He was a young man. I was a young woman. At that time, he was looking for another beer. Not a wife. I went to another room and found someone to make me a cocktail. In the years that followed I pursued a mostly happy and unmarried career life.

Keep your flak jackets on. This war isn’t ending anytime soon.

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, lives in Minneapolis.

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