"For most of you, the cornerstone of your future and happiness will be inextricably linked to the man you marry ... Find a husband on campus before you graduate."
Susan Patton's incendiary letter, titled "Advice for the young women of Princeton: the daughters I never had," is the spiritual equivalent of a nettlesome aunt at a holiday dinner. Whispering and tugging at your sleeve, she foretells great misery if you don't couple up, soon.
Published last Friday in The Daily Princetonian, Patton's letter exhorted young women at the school to "lean in" less and husband hunt more, preferably ahead of graduation. Patton – class of '77 – argued that women who settle for men below their intellectual level eventually come to resent those husbands, herself included. The divorcée believes there is nowhere better to meet your brainy match than at university.
Response to the advice crashed Princeton's website, earning Patton vitriol from around the world. That included a stern rebuttal from Jill Dolan, the school's director of gender and sexuality studies, who scolded her for spewing a 1950s' worldview of campus as a "competition ground" where female students "enrolled only to find husbands – that is, for an Mrs. degree."
Never mind that the demographic Patton refers to – age 18 to 22 – bears little resemblance to its counterpart in the '50s. The letter and its aspirations handily overlook modern mating realities on campus – students focusing their efforts on landing scarce jobs, and devoting what's left of their time to efficient, booze-fuelled hook-ups. Who can picture them ferreting out life-mates with common values at the kegger?
Still, several women rose up in support of Patton. Among them, millennial Julia Shaw waxed ecstatic on Slate about getting married at 23 to a sophomore she met at a Christian college. "Marriage wasn't something we did after we'd grown up – it was how we have grown up and grown together," Shaw gushed. While she had fretted that hubby-to-be would compromise her studies, Shaw wrote, "Looking back, my artificial, rigid timeline of success almost derailed my real happiness."
The Daily Beast's Megan McArdle also chimed in, arguing that "all that pressure to marry whoever happens to be around, which you so neatly avoided at 22, pops up again – around 30 for women, around 35 for men." The new, postponed "five-year window that has been socially prescribed for marrying" isn't doing women any favours, wrote McArdle. "At 22, you're less likely to have to settle: The dating pool is larger."
For all her retro Cosmo-isms, did Patton have a point?
"I love the idea of finding the person, of having that piece done early – as opposed to trying to do that in your 30s with the mess that often entails," said Suzanne Venker, a FOX News pundit who wrote the new book How to Choose a Husband (And Make Peace with Marriage). "Finding him doesn't mean marrying him right away," Venker points out.
And others agree with Patton's point that college may be in fact the best marriage market, since everybody's single.
"People don't meet when they've dropped a can of peas at the same time in the grocery store. That happens in movies. In real life, it's really hard to meet people when they aren't outside your door in college," said Lori Gottlieb, author of the much-debated 2010 book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough. She believes women are "at the top of the dating totem pole when we're in college. You can date younger or older. You're very appealing."
Still, critics aren't sold on the suggestion that women should do more to find a mate while in university.
"I just don't think that any 18-year-old can know what will make for a good marriage, and I wouldn't equate worthiness with a college pedigree," said Pamela Haag, author of Marriage Confidential: Love in the Post-Romantic Age. "I have faith in what young people are doing. They're rethinking marriage. They're putting it off because they have other things going on in their lives."
Nonetheless, commenters barked that Patton's advice was shrewd, nastily citing the "shelf life" of every woman – making no mention, of course, of men's own biological clocks.
Canadian economist Marina Adshade, author of the recent book Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex and Love, counters that biological considerations do not necessitate women marrying while in still college: "That doesn't mean you have to marry at 22. You've still got plenty years of fertility left, especially if you're willing to have children as soon as you get married."
She added: "The only benefit to marrying at 24 is if you want to have six children. There's not a whole lot of difference between a 24-year-old bride and a 32-year-old bride if they're both having just two children."
What is ultimately missing from the debate is men, who are not addressed in Patton's letter beyond mythical Princeton husbands-in-waiting.
"It's one thing to tell women to marry young, but unless men want the same thing, it's a moot point," said Adshade. "The idea that if women open themselves up to get married, Princeton men will be dropping to their knees everywhere with an engagement ring in hand, that idea is really strange."
Citing the "adultalescence" of many students, Gottlieb concurred: "It's not easy to find men who want to be in committed relationships in college."
Also not acknowledged in Patton's dispatch is the enormous gender shift happening on campus. Adshade has noted that for every 100 university-educated men between the ages of 24 and 45 in Canada, there are now 125 equally educated women, a divide that is increasing and will create even stiffer competition for men with post-secondary degrees. Adshade has found that it's increasingly couples in the college-educated cohort – not the less educated set – who marry. The economist has even joked about pushing her high-school-aged son to attend university, simply to improve his own chances of landing a happy marriage.
Perhaps this is the new Mrs. degree.
As Adshade says, "If you're an educated man, your marriage prospects are much better."