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The Post-Modern MRS
December 2, 2010 - 9:31pm

The benighted “MRS” degree bore a particular meaning for my mother’s generation. Young women went off to college with minimal interest in their major and maximum interest in securing a mate. Their graduation took a distant second to their wedding as evidence that they had successfully concluded their college experience. Think of Elizabeth Taylor in Father of the Bride. The weary wives of Mad Men hold degrees from the vaunted “Seven Sisters:” Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mt. Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley. An embittered divorcée says in season one that she never used her four years of Holyoke French after her honeymoon in Paris.

Kate Middleton’s successful application for membership in The House of Windsor resurrects the social role of a university education for the upwardly mobile, post-modern woman. That Miss Middleton will become Her Royal Highness, The Princess of Wales, aka Mrs. Windsor at the same time the UK university system faces fundamental revisions, which may well expel those who are “NQOCD: Not Quite Our Class Dear,” seems a phenomenal stroke of fate.

Harry Mount titled his blog for the Telegraph, “William and Kate: an unambitious, stable Sloane makes for perfect wife material." Why? Because although Kate has the St. Andrew’s education to make her respectable and mature as opposed to William’s uneducated and immature mother, she has never demonstrated a desire to translate that education into a career. Her time at university enabled her to meet William and promenade half-naked, all in the name of her higher education. Her instructors declare her to have been academically uninspired - another boon for the horse and hound set. The MRS degree enabled women to marry men geared towards the gentleman’s ‘C’ in the US. “As” or “First Class Honours” in UK parlance remain a tad déclassé.

After all, straight ‘As’ mean one must work at something. Whether a nominally middle-class millionairess like Miss Middleton or an heir to the British throne like Prince William, to work would be beneath them. Miss Middleton’s parents worked and presumably very hard so that their daughter could avoid such indignity. They, as the press proclaims, will never be royal. Their unsullied daughter will.

The American MRS degree has taken a different form from those held by our British cousins. At some point, the MRS degree became a Master of Resuscitative Scholarship. While I slogged through my doctorate, I remember watching television with irrational rage each time a woman would emerge from her McMansion in order to maximize her use of the advertised SUV through her perfect integration of carpooling, antiquing, and graduate study. The Honda Odyssey runs a similar ad now. The use of the graduate degree to certify these women resuscitate their brains in seminars during the implied stultification of at-home motherhood enrages me more now that I have been an at-home mother. The implication that graduate education is an accoutrement to (upper) middle-class motherhood offends me as both a PhD and a mother.

Serious graduate study is a full-time job. Many women work full time jobs while raising their children. So too can women complete serious graduate degrees while mothering. However, such ads make no mention of TAships and RAships nor of hours in libraries and laboratories. I assume the post-modern “Mad Men” who dreamt up these ads imagine well-heeled husbands footing the bill for their post-modern “Mrs.” to remain intellectually engaged in a part-time master’s degree. These made-for-TV mothers appear to carry their enrollment in and of itself as a pre-requisite for proper parenthood just as the “co-eds” of an earlier age considered undergraduate enrollment an entrée to matrimony.

Perhaps after Kate provides William with “an heir and a spare,” she too will sign up for a part-time degree to fortify her cocktail conversation at Buckingham Palace. I wish the future Princess of Wales all the joys of motherhood and graduate study, but only if she commits to each as a undeniable desire not another duty ascribed to her by a judgemental world.

Evanston, Illinois in the USA

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is a regular contributor at University of Venus and an associate director of the office of fellowships and teaches history and American studies at Northwestern University, from which she earned her B.A. (1992). She earned M.Litt. (1994) and M.Phil. (1995) degrees in European History as a Marshall Scholar at Cambridge University before completing her Ph.D. at Princeton University (2000). In her so-called spare time, she fights household entropy, gardens, bakes boozy bundts, enjoys breakfast in Bollywood, and writes scholarly papers about funky monks. For more, visit or find Elizabeth on Twitter@ejlp and LinkedIn.


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