Susan Patton may be the most hated woman in America. Last week, the Princeton grad (president, class of ’77) achieved instant notoriety when she published a letter in the student newspaper. In it, she advised Princeton women to do themselves a favour and snag a Princeton man.
“For most of you,” she wrote, “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.”
Naturally, the blogosphere went ballistic. Critics flogged Ms. Patton for being icky, retro, elitist and sexist, and also for shilling shamelessly for her son, a Princeton junior. Jill Dolan, Princeton’s director of gender and sexuality studies, wrote a rebuttal, saying: “I regret that her rhetoric encourages current Princeton students toward a version of higher education that was popular in the 1950s which assumed – to everyone’s detriment – that female students enrolled only to find husbands – that is, for an Mrs. degree.”
Ms. Patton was doing no such thing. She was merely pointing out that marriage matters more than many young women think. It probably matters more than anything else they will ever do. She was also laying out some excruciatingly inconvenient truths, many of which a lot of women learn the hard way.
Here’s one: The younger you are, the larger the pool of eligible males who are also likely to be interested in you.
I didn’t know that at the time, of course. I thought the pool was bottomless. In fact, I had little interest in the guys I met in university. They seemed like children! I imagined that a world of possibility awaited me, full of sexy, vibrant, highly intelligent and successful men who would be thrilled to make me happy one day.
In other words, I aspired to marry up. I now realize this was icky, retro, elitist and anti-feminist of me, but there you are. Despite all those gender studies courses, most women want to marry up, or at least marry someone they respect. Few women with advanced degrees in international studies want to settle down with Dick the House Painter. This desire is not socially constructed. It’s more or less hard-wired.
Here’s another of Ms. Patton’s home truths: Time is not on your side.
The life script I’d laid out for myself was typical of a modern, liberated woman. I saw marriage as a capstone – something you got around to after all the other pieces were in place. Besides, how could I get married if I didn’t even know who I was? I felt vaguely disdainful of women who headed straight from university to the altar. How timid! I thought of marriage as something you did after your identity was shaped – not as something that helped shape it.
Out in the real world, the script did not quite unfold as I’d wished. The exciting, successful men I imagined I would meet were bafflingly hard to find. I discovered that not all men were turned on by independent-minded women with advanced degrees. As for myself, I did not require a rocket scientist. But I did require someone who liked to read – and that excluded more people than I’d expected.
“As Princeton women, we have almost priced ourselves out of the market,” Ms. Patton wrote in her brutally frank letter. “Simply put, there is a very limited population of men who are as smart or smarter than we are.”
Plenty of women are smart but dumb. They wind up in their mid-30s complaining that there are no good men out there. While they were building their careers and finding out who they were, the good men married someone else, moved to the suburbs and had a family. Maybe they’ll get divorced some day, but probably not.
In other words, life is hideously unfair and Mother Nature is a sexist pig. “My younger son is a junior and the universe of women he can marry is limitless,” Ms. Patton wrote. But a female Princeton graduate’s marriageability will inexorably decline. Of course, plenty of women find a great life partner at 42 – I did. But it’s harder.
Early marriage has acquired a bad reputation since my parents’ day. (They were 18 and 22 when they wed, and nobody thought twice about it.) It can be a hideous mistake. But it can also produce extremely durable and happy unions. This week, I had dinner with a couple who got married when they were 19 and 20. Sixty-four years later, they remain life partners in everything. I know several couples my age who wed in their early 20s – just babies – and went on to have wonderfully fulfilling lives. They shaped each other. They had their children young. Many of the women have advanced degrees and astounding résumés. They’ve had the benefit of loving partners who’ve encouraged them in everything they’ve done (and vice versa).
They’re the same women I looked down on 40 years ago. Now I know better.