On 29 March - coincidentally my birthday and the day General George Patton took Frankfurt - Susan Patton published a Letter to the Editor in The Daily Princetonian titled “Advice for the Young Women of Princeton: the Daughters I Never Had” that made a stir at my doctoral alma mater. Like me, Patton has two sons. Like me, Patton has adopted highly accomplished female undergraduates at her alma mater as surrogate daughters. Like me, Patton finds endless banter about “leaning in” to careers vapid unless it engages women’s private as well as public personas. Unlike me, she advises Princeton women to graduate with a diploma and a marriage license. Ms. Patton’s prescription depends upon three flawed premises, all rooted in assumptions.
First, she assumes the young women she addressed will never enter a more elite pool of potential life-partners than their Princeton undergraduate class. For some, that may be true. Others will enter yet more extraordinary assemblages of talent, where ‘legacy’ candidates and athletic attributes play no role in selection. Some young women might find a better mate (of whichever gender - legally acknowledged or not) at Yale Law, Harvard Med, or in their Fulbright cohort than among those gathered at Nassau Hall. Others may choose to never marry.
Second, Patton assumes that men date younger women, but women must date their age equivalents. Thus she warns that while male Princeton seniors can date among four classes of females, senior women need to hurry up and grab one of their classmates before the campus crab-apples blossom. I can only suppose that her argument emerges from the popularly held belief that women mature at a younger age than men. I used to say one ought not date a man younger than 25, because he would be incapable of commitment. Neuroscience says no one’s brain has fully matured until the age of 25. If she believes that marriage is dating’s endgame, Ms. Patton should provide chastity belts to every Princeton student regardless of class year or gender.
Third, Patton assumes that if a Princeton Tigress lands her male prey while a nubile undergrad, she will manage to keep him in a nuptial cage until death does them part. The first and second planks of Patton’s argument undermine the third. Following her logic, if a man prefers pretty, young, and dippy to elegant, mature, and brilliant, marrying him young merely dooms a woman to one of two scenarios: either this superficial and unworthy man will dump her when middle-age brings wrinkles to her brow and/or her midriff, or he will emulate Bill Clinton and support her career while abandoning her bed. Just because he holds a Princeton degree, a tiger won’t change his stripes.
While I was writing this piece, the BBC announced Baroness Thatcher’s death. I reviewed the “Iron Lady’s” romantic history with Patton’s letter in mind. Margaret Roberts did NOT marry an Oxford classmate. She married a divorcée she met through political activities at 26 and bore twins at 28. Mr. Thatcher was ten years her senior, a decorated war veteran, and millionaire businessman who never attended university. Whether deriding or lauding his participation in “Maggie’s” career, commentators accept his necessary role in her political success. My politics align far more closely with Hillary Clinton’s than Margaret Thatcher’s, but given the choice between Ivy League eugenics or the Thatchers’ educationally unequal endurance, I wish the undergraduate girls cum women of Princeton the latter scenario over the former one as those who wish it march towards matrimony.
No marriage is perfect. Indeed, I suspect that marriages between equal intellects demand greater negotiation that those where one partner defers to the other as a superior mind. Barack Obama may have preferred Michelle to say “you’ll be great” rather than “don’t screw it up” when he approached the podium for his career-making DNC speech in 2004, but I doubt it. When Michelle Robinson married a man she met - gasp - AFTER Princeton and a transfer student from Occidental to Columbia at that, even her Princeton alumnus brother thought he was worth the wait.
For full disclosure, I met my husband when I was 22 and newly arrived as a graduate student at Cambridge University in England. I was as taken by the searing intellect that won him the top exam results in Philosophy as an Oxford undergraduate as I was by his curly hair and empathetic soul. He is five years my senior and thus met my 25 year rule. He should have run, as my brain had another three years of development left. Lucky for me, and our two wonderful boys, he did not. Because Ms. Patton - I suspect - would dismiss Northwestern as suitable husband-hunting grounds, she would have supported my cloistered undergraduate devotion to the library. Thank heavens, my husband evaded the Oxonian femme fatales who his friends’ report made attempts at actualizing a variant of Ms. Patton’s plan. They offered humorous fodder for wedding speeches, but I walked down the aisle and into a future my undergraduate self never imagined as part of a spousal strategic plan.
Evanston, Illinois in the US.
Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is a member of the University of Venus editorial collective; a contributor to The Historical Society Blog; and an associate director of the Office of Fellowships at Northwestern University, where she teaches History and American Studies. For more, follow @ejlp on Twitter or go to http://elizabethlewispardoe.com.