When Princeton alumna Susan Patton garnered national attention last week for her “straight talking advice” letter imploring the young women of her alma mater to spend their college years “finding the right man to marry,” many of us female Princeton students rolled our eyes.
While her original “Princeton Mom” letter published in The Daily Princetonian last year attracted some headlines, her updated Valentine’s Day advice in The Wall Street Journal went viral—it’s the year 2014 and her reactionary perspective is straight from the 1950s.
The letter is so ridiculous that people can be forgiven for assuming that the Wall Street Journal and Patton are just trolling us. But I believe she’s sincere; she’s gotten a book deal out of her dating advice, at least. I met Patton myself once at Princeton and she definitely had the air of a well-meaning but zany matriarch with no verbal filter. But at worst, she perpetuates the worst stereotypes of both women and men. While Susan Patton’s advice is horribly regressive for women, as a feminist Princeton student, I find it incredibly insulting to men.
Feminists are often accused of “man-hating,” but true misandry comes from the conservative view that men are fundamentally unchangeable losers and need to be manipulated into long-term partnerships. This fatalistic “boys will be boys” attitude projects a cynical view of men’s behavior, demonizes male sexuality, and manages to simultaneously objectify and dismiss men of all ages.
Despite Patton’s insistence about all the “brilliant, marriageable” college boys, the letter actually conveys a deep-seated resentment toward men. Just look at her language:
“Those men who are as well-educated as you are often interested in younger, less challenging women.”
“Very few men have egos that can endure what they will see as a form of emasculation.”
“It’s amazing how forgiving men can be about a woman’s lack of erudition, if she is exceptionally pretty.”
Last year, Patton came back to Princeton to speak to a crowd of skeptical and morbidly curious students. When one female student raised her hand and asked, “If you admit that your male classmates weren’t that great until they cleaned up after college, then why isn’t it a good idea to wait to get married?” Patton responded with the sentiment expressed in her piece: By the time you’re 30, the good men will all be scumbags who are married off to younger, less impressive wives.
Where do Patton’s man-bashing views come from? In a response to New York Magazine, the newly divorced Patton says she wished she had married a man from college, because her own ex-husband “went to a school of almost no name recognition.” That elitist bitterness, in addition to her own experiences being one of the first women to attend Princeton against her parents wishes, colors her perspective on marriage.
As she wrote in a 2006 Princeton Alumni Weekly article:
“[Going to Princeton] was upsetting and shameful to my parents. I would be the first woman in my family to attend college… My leaving their home before marriage was an utter disgrace to them… They were adamant that a young girl’s place is in her parents’ home, until she is in her husband’s home. European immigrants and concentration camp survivors, my parents couldn’t understand why at 18 years old, I didn’t direct my efforts towards finding a mate.”
Patton’s college experience speaks to the struggles and trauma of being a single, educated, first-generation immigrant woman back in 1977—which is why it’s even more disappointing to see that such an otherwise pioneering woman would re-enact that shame on young women today.
While most women I’ve talked to have expressed their revulsion to her advice, a few female Princeton students came to Patton after her speaking event and expressed genuine concern about their marriage prospects. There is certainly a desire for motherhood and partnership among many Ivy League women, and it is important not to erase that when speaking about feminism.
Patton puts up the strawman argument that feminists believe motherhood and feminism are incompatible. But that’s because in Patton’s world, women need to debase ourselves by using our feminine wiles to charm our potential mates, conning or bewitching them into our possession until a marriage contract and/or baby pops out. As fellow Princetonian Lea Trusty aptly wrote, Patton treats men like Pokémon.
As a feminist, I believe my male peers can do better. They can rise above the expectations that Susan Patton sets for them. I know many young straight college men who would not be intimidated or emasculated by a well-educated woman. These men don’t plan to be married off anytime soon, and I expect they will find an independent, accomplished woman of 30 with a PhD in kicking ass just as impressive as when she was a 22-year-old girl.
If I wanted to be generous, there is one positive interpretation of Patton’s advice. I do think that my peers could invest more time in interpersonal relationships. That is, while the Sheryl Sandbergs of the world are telling us to “lean in” to the dehumanizing effects of the corporate rat race, maybe we should invest our college years in building long-term friendships, partnerships, and support communities. In my world, people of all genders and sexual orientations resist the scarcity-driven, binary paradigms that Patton’s world reinforces.
I’ve always found the millennial assumption that one’s ambitions are fundamentally incompatible with one’s desire for committed relationships to be silly. It is entirely possible to construct long-term, loving relationships that allow you to pursue your professional and academic dreams—but it requires thinking outside the box of Susan Patton’s narrow-minded love advice.
Vivienne Chen is a freelance writer, journalist, and videographer from Princeton University who covers issues of gender & sexuality and reports local and national news. See more of her work at viviennechen.com.