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April 12, 2013

Bachelorette degree

The problem with Princetonian letter-writer Susan Patton’s marriage advice is that its audience doesn’t exist.

First of all, I would like to congratulate Susan Patton, as she has most certainly already congratulated herself, on daring to “go there.” Patton, a Princeton alumna, wrote a now-notorious March 29 letter to the Daily Princetonian advising female Princeton students thus: “Here’s what nobody is telling you: Find a husband on campus before you graduate.”

“Yes,” she added. “I went there.”

The backlash, as you might expect, was immediate and palpably acidic. A Gawker article referred to Patton’s letter, which also included a wink and a nudge toward her unmarried Princeton-enrolled son, as a “lecture on the importance of eugenics in romance.” Other parts of the Internet have not been so kind.

To the likely surprise of fellow feminists, I don’t take issue with Patton’s advice itself. I have to give her credit: She has, if smugly, put her finger on a taboo. If it is no longer “heresy” among educated women to make public one’s desire for marriage and motherhood—as she writes that it was in her time—it remains a cardinal sin at least. The difference is that nowadays you won’t get tied to a stake simply for expressing that you’d “really like to have kids.” Motherhood isn’t the root of the stigma—no sir, not in this age of leaning in and opting out and putting your right foot in and shaking it all about. Rather, the supposed enemy of modern feminism is housewifery, that well-known brainwasher of women that condemns them to a life of dusting mantles and baking cobblers instead of pursuing their true passion for molecular engineering.

I hope the sarcasm was clear, because I agree with the many who have argued that it’s problematic to shame women who have failed, for whatever reason, to become Sheryl Sandberg. Just because a woman doesn’t end up smiling glassy-eyed from the cover of her New York Times bestselling book doesn’t mean that she is not “doing” women’s rights correctly. There is no reason that the women’s rights movement must begin with identifying and tearing down the “wrong” sort of woman. Which is why Patton’s advice doesn’t really bother me: Getting married, or wanting to get married, or giving people casual, subjective advice on how you think they can optimize their chances of a successful marriage does not make you less of a feminist. (If you think I’m wrong, see me after this. We need to have a chat). And if you’re still pissed off, do what I did. Reread Patton’s letter, but this time imagine that your kindly old grandmother is rambling it to you from a rocking chair over the rhythmic click of her knitting needles. It’s enlightening.

That said, my goat was very much got by one aspect of Patton’s letter: the manner in which she addressed it. “Princeton women”—or, as Patton rather frighteningly put it, “the daughters I never had”— is an absurd category of people to give romantic counsel to. If “Princeton women” are as talented and insightful a bunch as Patton claims they are, they are certainly also intellectually and emotionally diverse. They are unlikely, for example, to be uniformly heterosexual. Those who are heterosexual are unlikely to be uniformly interested in marriage. Those who are interested in marriage are unlikely to be uniformly committed to having a husband who is their age or older. Et cetera; the subdivisions proliferate. In the end, Patton’s tinny advice will resonate in a very small number of similarly tuned ears. The problem is that she doesn’t seem to know that.

What’s at work here? Why does Patton feel called upon to evangelize young women with the good word of the MRS degree and thereby inject some light into what would otherwise be a dark and torturous existence?  It’s because she’s self-righteous, but it’s also because she’s on to something—the taboo I’m talking about. She understands that there are young women who care—just as many young men do—about their personal and romantic futures, and who feel obligated to hide it. And she rightly observes that this is a shame.

This is why many articles criticizing Patton miss the point. They dismiss her letter as laughable rather than wonder why Patton saw fit to write it. The fact is that buried in this letter is the well-known and immensely unfortunate truth that women feel alienated by feminism because there exist feminists who find it necessary to accuse them of lying to themselves. If you’re not convinced that this is a problem, bear in mind that even Beyoncé doesn’t want to be associated with feminists. And if that doesn’t scare you, then will you please also come kill all the spiders in my closet? Thanks.

I’m joking; I love spiders. But here’s the point: Yes, there is something unnerving about the idea that anyone who has paid and worked for an unbelievably expensive and high-quality education would forgo all its possible material benefits. But it’s pretty much none of your damn business, just as it is none of Patton’s damn business to coo over her imagined Princeton daughters—a group whose real-life counterpart encompasses many who don’t relate to the “truth” that Patton so generously reveals to them.

It is important that I also mention, however, that there ought always to be room for critique. We should think about what marriage means to us, and why we may be doing it, and in what ways it might refract institutional inequalities. But we will never get there if we find it necessary to begin with demonizing or dismissing the life choices of those we should seek to include and understand. That’s what Patton did. And because she claimed to speak for everyone, she silenced even those she hoped to liberate.

She went there. We can go further.

Emma Thurber Stone is a second-year in the College. 

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