03.30.13

An Alumna’s Advice for the Young Women of Princeton: Marry My Son

Eveline Chao talks to Susan A. Patton, whose letter to The Daily Princetonian advising women to marry a classmate (ideally, Patton’s son) before they graduate indeed “went there.”

On February 22, Princeton University president Shirley M. Tilghman and professor Anne-Marie Slaughter spoke on campus before a packed auditorium about Slaughter’s much-buzzed-about Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” During the event, Slaughter called for “the next wave of an equal-rights revolution.”

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Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

One month later a speaker from one of the breakout sessions afterward dropped an apparent anti-feminist bomb on the campus.

In a letter published in The Daily Princetonian on Friday, Susan A. Patton, the president of the class of ’77, offered her “advice for the young women of Princeton.”

One of the more-quoted lines that immediately began zinging across social media read, “Here’s what nobody is telling you: Find a husband on campus before you graduate. Yes, I went there.”

Patton continued: “As Princeton women, we have almost priced ourselves out of the market ... You will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of you.”

There was also:

“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.”

The image conjured for most was of a rich, ‘50s housewife who dabbles in eugenics. Unsurprisingly, the blogosphere went nuts. The Daily Princetonian site attracted 80-something comments before crashing Friday. One female undergrad wrote, “Because the reason I worked my ass off to get into Princeton was to find a man. This article only reinforces the stereotype that women here are looking to get their MRS, instead of a world class education. Disappointing.” She signed herself, “a woman who is here to get an education, not a husband.”

Patton was also called a “WASP,” “offensive,” and “sheltered.” One person said, “Thank god you didn’t have daughters.” On Twitter, @DesiderioAArnaz tweeted, “Feminism just died at Princeton.” Another user named @dylanmatt appended the link with, “A stirring call for the genetically gifted to band together and form a master race.” I myself am a Princeton alum, and when former classmates posted the link on Facebook, some speculated that it was an April Fools’ joke.

A phone call Friday with Patton confirmed that it was not.

“I’m mortified,” she said of the online comments. But when asked if she would like to clarify or change anything she’d said, she replied, “Not really.”

“I understand how retrogressive it is, and yes, I understand that not every woman on earth wants to get married and have kids, that yes, you could marry a man who is not your intellectual equal,” said Patton. “I’m just saying, you increase your odds of being happy in your marriage, happy in your life, if you find a husband who is appropriate for you. Which gets harder after you graduate ... I don’t mean to be anti-feminist. This is truly the advice I would give my daughters if I had them.”

“I’m just saying, you increase your odds of being happy in your marriage, happy in your life, if you find a husband who is appropriate for you. Which gets harder after you graduate.”

She also revealed a few details that might not reconcile her with feminists, but which do counter the impression given by her letter.

First, she isn’t a WASP. (“It was intended as advice from a nice Jewish mother. That’s all it was.”)

Second, she isn’t exclusively a homemaker. Patton has run her own HR consulting and executive coaching business in New York City for 20 years. She didn’t work the first five years after her first son, now class of 2010, was born, but has ever since.

And third, she isn’t married to a Princeton grad. In fact, she’s just out of what she calls a “horrible” divorce, after 27 years of marriage. “My husband’s academic background was not as luxurious as mine, and that was a source of some stress,” said Patton. “I think he felt a certain level of resentment.”

By contrast, she says of Princeton men, “these are the guys who will never be resentful of your Princeton education. They’ll value it. They’ll applaud it. They’ll come back to reunions with you without making a face.”

Patton’s parents, too, were unenthusiastic about her time in the Ivy League—something she previously wrote about in 2006 for the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

Elaborating on the phone, Patton explained:

“My parents were both survivors of concentration camps, and all they wanted for me was to marry. Ideally they wanted me to marry a butcher, because then there would always be meat on the table. The thought of their unmarried daughter leaving home before marriage was a disgrace to them. So I applied to Princeton as an emancipated minor, I paid for it myself, and I went away to college against my parents’ wishes. And it cost me dearly and still does.”

To be clear, not everyone disagrees with Patton’s letter. I’ve overheard plenty of former female classmates express regret for not appreciating what an eligible pool of men we were surrounded with for four years (though, none would say it on the record). And as highlighted by a viral video from last year called “The Ivy League Hustle,” some Princeton women avoid mentioning where they went to school for fear of scaring off suitors. Patton, you can bet, would never do that.