Susan Patton

Ms. Patton: Stop Pushing the Mrs. Degree

Now and then, you’ll read something that makes your head just hurt. Sure, this seems to be happening more often lately, but this one really sucked.

A Princeton alum recently wrote a letter to the current students of her alma mater. Did she encourage them to embrace the moment? Did she push them to realize their potential? Did she ask them to venture boldly into the world to make a difference? Nope. She told them not to neglect their studies in pursuit of the rare Mrs. degree [emphasis mine]:

For most of you, 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. Yes, I went there.

Excuse me? Did a well-educated woman really just advise a group of young women that their happiness is dependent on finding a suitable mate? Did I just get time-warped back to 1956? 

Please don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a criticism of marriage or partnership or romance. If that’s what you want, go for it. If it’s important to you, I get it. I’m not saying those are bad life choices, or even questionable ones. But to prioritize THAT issue for ALL female students at one of the most PRESTIGIOUS universities in the country isn’t just laughable – it’s offensive.

Patton had every right to say what she did. But that doesn’t mean she should have said it. Her language evaluates female worth according to male relationships, which (ignoring the insensitivity to LGBT communities – all women have to marry men?!) diminishes perceived inherent worth in a person by linking it to gender. Are you less of a person because you don’t get married? Are you less accomplished because you’re addressed as “Ms.” instead of “Mrs.”? Is it really the smartest use of hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt to spend time chasing after what you’re “supposed” to want, instead of – I don’t know – pursuing the education you came for? Of course not.

I tried to think of a way this message could have been delivered in a less offensive manner, but there really isn’t one. Her argument is not that individuals who are interested in marriage should focus on finding a partner during this time period; her argument is that finding a partner is the most important element of self-fulfillment and happiness. It’s this hierarchy that causes the problem.

When we place external, gender-based validation above self-love and betterment, we create a recipe for self-loathing and regret. How many more decades of failed or miserable marriages based on these faulty assumptions about worth must we endure before we stop telling women that they’ve arrived when there’s a ring on their left hand? Again, it’s not that marriage or relationships are bad. It’s the idea that these relationships are more important than who we are as individuals that’s bad.

And really, it’s an insult to marriage to frame it in this light. Marriage is about love and a lifelong commitment to someone for whom you care deeply. When we talk about it like it’s something to check off your list on the quest to a picture perfect biography, it cheapens that idea. That’s not something anyone should want.

My advice to the women of Princeton, and women everywhere? Love yourself first. Then figure out whether you want to be with someone else.

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18 comments

  1. That’s insane. I can’t believe that happened. I mean, I can, but it’s saddening and troubling in 2013 to be continually told that our worth is dependent on the man we choose to marry.

  2. I read the letter in its entirety (directed by your link). It is clear that this woman did not have any daughters. God help her daughters-in-law. It is sad to see how someone so “smart” and “accomplished” could be so insensitive. Forging good relationships is important. And I agree that spouses should be intellectual equals. But to think that the selection process should be largely delegated to a college admissions committee? That is just silly. I went to a fancy school myself (much fancier than Princeton) and can’t imagine the hell my life would be now if I had married my college boyfriend. But that isn’t the point, I guess. Thanks for calling this lady out on her ridiculousness!

  3. Best line AND best advice – “My advice to the women of Princeton, and women everywhere? Love yourself first. Then figure out whether you want to be with someone else.” Women (or men) are not complete humans without a partner? Heck no!

  4. I see a lot of rationale like this from the Conservatives. Particularly their women trot this out to fit the mold of subservience to men, often highlighted with passages from the bible.

    Sigh.

    Thanks for writing this though!

  5. I’m sadly not that surprised someone said this. I remember talking to a girl my senior year of high school, who had just found out she got into NYU. I asked her what she was going to study and what kind of job she wanted to get. She replied that she was only going to a good university to find a husband who would be rich enough so she could be a stay at home mom, which is exactly what her mom did. I was pretty surprised she said that, but later learned the “go to college to find a husband” thing was actually a really common idea among my wealthier classmates.

  6. Honestly, I’m gonna have to (kind of) disagree with you on this one – and I will actually respond in full around 2 pm.

  7. I definitely agree with you here although, I haven’t heard anyone comment how sexist this is towards men as well. I mean, she’s outright states that unless a man has attended an Ivy League college, he is unworthy of the affections of a woman who did attend one. It’s basically implying that all others are idiots and will have absolutely nothing to offer. Overall, she simply comes across as someone with a superiority complex.

    1. Agreed. It’s also unnerving that this conversation never takes place for men. They aren’t told to go to college to find a wife. Is it because men somehow don’t value relationships as much? I doubt it. The whole conversation stinks.

  8. Unbelievable. I read her entire letter as I was curious how old she is. (She is 2 years older than I am). So she is from “my” generation, one that went to college in the thrilling years of the 70s with all the intellectual foment of the various movements (women’s, blacks’, gays’, etc.). And she was president of her class…. wow. I will agree with her that educated women should look for partners as intelligent as they are (duh). But the years in college are meant to be spent exploring ideas and learning the skills you need for a productive life. College is one of the most exciting periods you’ll have. You rarely get another chance to focus exclusively on improving your mind. Wasting that opportunity (to say nothing of what an education costs in $$s!) by concentrating on finding a husband… In the end I just feel sorry for her. —Jadi (PS: I have a Univ of OR Honors College B.A. And a career. And a husband.)

  9. Perhaps you’re interpreting her incorrectly – is it possible that maybe she just believes that women, not just as women, but as people – have an identity that is not based primarily on their careers, but rather on the most significant relationships in their lives?

    And maybe it should be concentrated on more than careerism?

    I don’t see what’s sexist about that – it may differ from your belief in individual ambition taking primacy over relationships, but she is not asserting patriarchy. She’s telling women that there are, in fact, things more important in life than your education and your future careers. Something that maybe everyone should hear more of, men included.

    1. That message would not have been offensive. Unfortunately, that was not the message provided by Ms. Patton. She told women, explicitly, to find a mate in college; in fact, she says that burden is not the same for men, saying that intelligence is not a priority for them, and they have their pick of options. Not only is this insulting to women, in implying that there’s some sort of time limit for finding an appropriate mate, but it’s insulting to men, as well, by arguing they’re all shallow. I’d urge you to read the letter itself, without inserting language on her behalf. Her message COULD be reconstructed in a more palatable manner; the point remains that the message, as it was presented, was offensive.

      1. That isn’t how you framed your response, however:

        “Did a well-educated woman really just advise a group of young women that their happiness is dependent on finding a suitable mate?”

        “Her language evaluates female worth according to male relationships, which (ignoring the insensitivity to LGBT communities – all women have to marry men?!) diminishes perceived inherent worth in a person by linking it to gender.”

        “her argument is that finding a partner is the most important element of self-fulfillment and happiness. It’s this hierarchy that causes the problem.”

        I could go on, but my point is that your response was not focused on what you just highlighted. I’m less interested in defending Ms. Patton than I am in refuting your response.

        I can agree with you that her speech was sexist in the sense that it did target women specifically – but your criticism goes beyond unequal treatment. It’s talking about this idea (which is a very recent one) that everyone should be in pursuit of an identity based on ambition and achievement. You’re placing the cart before the horse.

        Why do people have careers? What is their purpose?

        Historically, people (mostly men, of course) had careers to provide for their families. But the primary motivations for most people had always been on those interpersonal relationships. The marriage, the family is more important than the career. That has been turned on its head in the last century, with men (at first, anyway) turning their careers into something else – the career, the individual achievement, has ceased being a means to an end, and has become the end in of itself.

        Women have been the only thing keeping our civilization from going off the deep end with this ridiculous notion that people are defined by their achievements rather than their interpersonal and familial relationships. It’s men that need to back off the careerism, not women that need to match them in it.

      2. You’re right that there’s additional reasons for rejection presented in the post itself, and I’ll stand by my comments. It’s not that relationships are bad, and I don’t say that. In fact, I explicitly state:

        “Please don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a criticism of marriage or partnership or romance. If that’s what you want, go for it. If it’s important to you, I get it. I’m not saying those are bad life choices, or even questionable ones. But to prioritize THAT issue for ALL female students at one of the most PRESTIGIOUS universities in the country isn’t just laughable – it’s offensive.”

        “Again, it’s not that marriage or relationships are bad. It’s the idea that these relationships are more important than who we are as individuals that’s bad.”

        My message, instead, is that framing relationships the way Ms. Patton does is problematic. To this end, I state:

        “When we place external, gender-based validation above self-love and betterment, we create a recipe for self-loathing and regret.”

        “And really, it’s an insult to marriage to frame it in this light. Marriage is about love and a lifelong commitment to someone for whom you care deeply. When we talk about it like it’s something to check off your list on the quest to a picture perfect biography, it cheapens that idea. That’s not something anyone should want.”

        I’m not saying that everyone should put a career first. I’m not saying that everyone should put a relationship first. I’m saying that they should put themselves first, and make the decisions that are right for THEM instead of the ones that people tell them they’re SUPPOSED to make. Relationships can be awesome. But that doesn’t mean that marriage should be the end-all-be-all-goal-of-the-century. And she IS pushing marriage; her exact words were, “Find a husband on campus before you graduate.”

        Saying marriage should not be framed as the only acceptable top priority is also very different from encouraging “careerism” as you describe it. Again, relationships are important, but fulfillment can be derived from a wide variety of pursuits. For some, that may be marriage. For others, it may be their charity work, and seeing their impact on those around them. For others, it IS the job, and contributions made as part of a team or towards a specific, valuable end. Do I think we should measure our contributions in the world in dollar signs? Definitely not, but that doesn’t mean that being career-focused is uniquely damaging, either.

        Had she said, “Be sure not to neglect the relationships you foster during this time; those connections will shape you as a person and be perhaps one of the most rewarding takeaways from your time at Princeton,” I would have been all about the message. But that’s not the message she delivered, and that’s where I took issue.

      3. “I’m not saying that everyone should put a career first. I’m not saying that everyone should put a relationship first. I’m saying that they should put themselves first, and make the decisions that are right for THEM instead of the ones that people tell them they’re SUPPOSED to make. Relationships can be awesome. But that doesn’t mean that marriage should be the end-all-be-all-goal-of-the-century. And she IS pushing marriage; her exact words were, “Find a husband on campus before you graduate.” ”

        And that’s my contention – you’re making the claim that a choice between one’s career and one’s familial and interpersonal relationships is simply a choice between flavors. Careers are chocolate ice cream and early marriage is rocky road. So who cares which one you choose, it’s just a matter of taste that each individual can decide for their own.

        While it is a choice that everyone is entitled to make for themselves, it is not merely a choice between flavors. Rather than the ice cream example I gave above, it’s more akin to making a choice between eating ice cream and eating carrots or broccoli. Both are choices people have to make, and no one’s arguing that someone be forced to eat something they don’t like – but it makes sense to advise someone that yes, eating your vegetables before you eat your ice cream is a better choice to make.

        Ms. Patton may be ham-handed in her approach, since she neglects both consideration for LGBT people (although it may be an innocent omission rather than a purposeful slight) and seems to imply that ice cream is good for men while women should eat their vegetables, which is wrong – what is good for women is good for men as well in most cases (except taking hormonal drugs, I suppose) but the underlying point is something that (I think) needs to be said. Men may have been eating ice cream all these years while women were eating vegetables, but that doesn’t mean that women should just abandon what was a healthy institution in pursuit of becoming equal to men.

        You may disagree with that, but I think it’s somewhat ridiculous to act as if she should give women advice that really isn’t advice at all: “follow your heart” is a platitude, not advice, and while everyone has choices to make in life, not all paths are equal, and she has a right to advocate for the path she believes is right.

      4. I’m saying you don’t have to make the choice. I’m saying you can have both, and balance is good. I’m saying that broadly prescribed sequencing of those choices is probably inappropriate, and that prioritizing one above all others is probably not a good idea. She has every right to advocate the path she sees as better than others in whichever form she chooses, just as I have a right to criticize her implications in doing so.

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