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Princeton Alum Susan Patton Might Be Crazy, But Her Advice Isn't

Posted by Kara Baskin  April 1, 2013 02:00 PM

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Right now the Princeton University website is crashing because of a letter to the editor in the Daily Princetonian penned by alum Susan Patton, Class of 1977. The title: "Advice for the young women of Princeton: the daughters I never had." A tidbit from the frozen site: "Forget about having it all, or not having it all, leaning in or leaning out ... Here’s what nobody is telling you: Find a husband on campus before you graduate. Yes, I went there." Predictably, people are lashing out at her, calling her retro and presumptuous and all sorts of other names. But amid all the knee-jerk noise, there's this: Is she actually wrong?

First things first: She is absolutely obnoxious, atrociously so. She is divorced, and she discloses to the Cut in a tornado of haughtiness that her husband "went to a school of almost no name recognition ... Almost no name recognition. A school that nobody has respect for, including him, really."

Yes, she sounds like a Tiger Mom on steroids. And no, I would not want this woman as my mother, mother-in-law, or matchmaker. Even Gawker, always ever-so counterintuitive and hesitant when jumping on the snark bandwagon, is shocked. Who can blame them? She's just so easy:

"I am the mother of two sons who are both Princetonians. My older son had the good judgment and great fortune to marry a classmate of his, but he could have married anyone. My younger son is a junior and the universe of women he can marry is limitless. Men regularly marry women who are younger, less intelligent, less educated. It's amazing how forgiving men can be about a woman's lack of erudition, if she is exceptionally pretty. Smart women can't (shouldn't) marry men who aren't at least their intellectual equal. As Princeton women, we have almost priced ourselves out of the market. Simply put, there is a very limited population of men who are as smart or smarter than we are. And I say again: You will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of you."

There have been some predictable reactions: Some critics point out that not all women want to get married, and not all women want to marry men, and that, hey, guys should do some of the looking, too. All true! But not really the point. In reading this coverage, I want to separate regretful divorcee Susan Patton, sobbing into her Princeton sweatshirt, from her message—which doesn't sound all that nuts.

Why are we so reluctant to admit that it is hard to find eligible men (and women?) to marry? Why are people afraid to admit that, OK, the world of dating is sometimes thrilling and fun ... but quite often, horrible and lonely? What's wrong with wanting to meet someone in college, presumably someone with whom you have shared experiences and stuff in common, and opt out of dealing with the crappy dates, the mystery texts, and the questioning looks from Auntie Mildred at the Thanksgiving table? And more to the point: What's wrong with wanting to be happy, sooner?

I'm reminded of a line in when Harry Met Sally, written by the unquestionably feminist Nora Ephron: "When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” So what's the matter with wanting to start that life ASAP, even if it's in college? It might be uncool (I can almost hear the same people who become enraged by women who want to stay home, saying they're eroding the feminist cause, engaging in a collective dry heave.) But guess what: Maybe these women just know what they want. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. We should admire them, not make fun of them.

Yes: It's horribly condescending to tell women to snag a man, any man with a pedigree and a pulse, just for the sake of being married and registering for china at Bloomingdales. I'm not arguing for settling. But what if you do set about finding a great guy (or girl, or whoever), feel secure in what you want at age 20 or 21, and end up with that person, subsequently sparing yourself years of bad dates and strange suitors? It's empowering, not pathetic. Why should finding a spouse be any different than angling for a great career or a corner office?

There's something un-PC about acknowledging the practical aspects of dating and marriage. I'm reminded of Lori Gottleib's hugely successful and controversial book, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, for which she was roundly chastised and later, grudgingly admired. (The New York Times declared in their review: "The truth isn’t pretty, but it can be liberating."):

Gottlieb, 37, made the decision to become a single parent after years of searching for Mr. Right. Four years later, when she still hadn’t found him, she decided to take a good look at her dating habits—and the dating habits of women around her—to see if the problem is not a dearth of good men but rather women’s expectations of them. Gottlieb finds that women want it all—and often aren’t willing to compromise on their list of traits their ideal mate must have. In their twenties, many women leave good relationships based on an elusive feeling that they could find something more with someone else, and they regret it down the road when their choices dwindle. It’s not that women aren’t willing to settle; it’s that many refuse to recognize that their vision of the perfect man doesn’t match reality. Her point: Get over yourself, ladies.

What Gottleib said then, and what I think Patton is trying in her tone-deaf, twittering-Granny-at-Christmas way to say now, is this: Sometimes you really do have to be strategic in the hunt. That isn't retro; it's calculating, practical, maybe protective. Yes, yes, she sounds like she'd be better off writing for The Preppy Handbook than the Daily Princetonian. But, if we separate the message from the messenger, I wonder if she hasn't just struck a chord.

Here's more on the story. What do you think?

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About the author

Kara Baskin (@kcbaskin) is a Boston-based writer, editor, and mom to Andy. She thinks Sriracha and garlic make everything tastier. She loves Steely Dan and "Murder, She Wrote." Her More »

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