On March 29, 2013, the Daily Princetonian published a letter to the editor from alumna Susan A. Patton urging women at Princeton to snag a Princeton man before graduation. If you haven’t yet heard about the letter, here is a bit of context: Patton had attended a Women and Leadership conference on campus featuring a conversation between President Shirley Tilghman and Wilson School professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of the much talked about article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” While these women focused on fundamental issues such as work/life balance and leadership, Patton preferred to focus on a much different issue in her letter. Patton’s letter to the Princetonian argues that women are no longer interested in career advice after having repeatedly been bombarded with it. Patton writes:
You girls glazed over at preliminary comments about our professional accomplishments and the importance of networking. Then the conversation shifted in tone and interest level when one of you asked how have Kendall and I sustained a friendship for 40 years. You asked if we were ever jealous of each other. You asked about the value of our friendship, about our husbands and children. Clearly, you don’t want any more career advice. At your core, you know that there are other things that you need that nobody is addressing. A lifelong friend is one of them. Finding the right man to marry is another.
After establishing a perceived need for relationship advice, Patton proceeds to argue that women, specifically Princeton women, must make finding a husband a priority while at school. She claims that Princeton women need men who are intellectually equal to them in order to foster a happy marriage. She writes, “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.” Further, according to Patton, the earlier a Princeton woman finds a Princeton man, the better, since, she believes, the pool of available partners dwindles as time goes on.
I could go on and on to recount the other numerous things Patton says in her letter, but, for the purposes of this blog, I think you can pretty much get the point. The letter has received a ton of media attention for the problematic nature of its content. Many argue that Patton is promoting the 1950’s idea of an MRS degree and others point out the problematic nature of Patton’s assumptions that women at Princeton necessarily want to get married, nonetheless get married to men. I agree with many of the critiques of the letter that highlight the issues with what Patton says. She does assume that all the women in the audience are heterosexual and that they necessarily want to get married, and I do see the issues that go along with that. She obviously promotes a traditionalist and heteronormative ideal that consistently pervades our culture; an ideal that I do think needs to change. I do, however, kind of get what she was trying to say.
After receiving backlash for the article, Patton has gone on to defend her letter. She claims that what she meant by what she wrote was that intellectual compatibility is important in a relationship and that women should take advantage of their four years at school where they are completely surrounded by intellectually compatible mates. While I do think she could have phrased this much differently (aka phrase it the way she did when she responded to the backlash), I do want to say that she does make somewhat of a valid point. I don’t necessarily think that anyone needs to rush into marriage, nor do I think that it should be a priority when you're between the ages of 18 and 22 (for the most part), but I do think that college is a time when people foster some of the most important relationships of their lives. In order to foster these relationships, however, we need intellectual compatibility. We, as college students pick our schools in order to surround ourselves with equally intelligent people for a reason. I know many of you can think of a time when you spoke to someone who wasn't "on your level" and how irritating that was. It's true. We need intellectual compatibility, but not just for marriage, we need it for friendships and every other type of human interaction. So, even though Patton pigeonholes this necessity for intellectual compatibility to just marriage, if we think about it on a broader level, she does in fact have a point.Also, I would like to point out that Patton never mentions anything about women solely using college to find a husband, nor does she ever mention that women should stay at home after getting married. As a member of the women’s pioneering class at Princeton in 1973, I don’t think it is fair to say that she is an anti-feminist. Yes, maybe she didn’t go about it the best way, but I don’t think she necessarily said or meant what many have gone on to interpret from her letter. I feel as though many are ready to attack those who do not adhere to either, for lack of better terms, traditional or progressive ideals. What is happening with Patton actually reminds me of the backlash Sheryl Sandberg has received (which I could go on about as well). Yes, it is our job as feminists and as members of society to view our actions critically, but maybe sometimes we should be less quick to attack and more willing to listen.
-Ariel Rivera ‘13