In her March 29, 2013, letter to the editor of The Daily Princetonian, Class of 1977 President Susan A. Patton tells Princeton women to find a husband: quick. She claims smart women – in this case the cerebral women of Princeton – will only be happy if they marry an “intellectual equal.” According to Patton if Princeton women wait until they leave the Ivy League they’re unlikely to run into many marriageable (read: smart) men. She admits that “soaring intellect” might not be the only thing that makes a mate desirable, but “ultimately,” she writes, “it will frustrate you to be with a man who just isn’t as smart as you.”
Patton writes to the “daughters [she] never had.” This is her advice to women at the top of their academic game? Get back to the old habit of seeking a Mrs. Degree? Get your ring by spring?
I suppose it is possible to read her commentary as heartfelt advice about long-term commitment. Men and women operating from the same intellectual plane may be better suited for one another. They may have more to talk about – or argue over – as the years add up. They may grow in similar directions and value similar approaches to life’s curveballs. Maybe she’s just suggesting that a man with a good brain is easier to put up with. Or that there is already enough misunderstanding in marriage without adding incompetency to the mix.
What strikes me about Patton’s letter is that she believes she holds the secret to happiness – she claims she’s willing to say what no other woman has the guts to utter out loud. Patton’s answer, her tough-love truth, is that marriage is the “cornerstone” of a woman’s happiness. She writes this so unequivocally, that it’s easy to dismiss her ideas as backwards and uninteresting. She doesn’t leave room for other sources of happiness – friendships, or service, or intellectual achievement. However, it’s not Patton’s answer that resonates with me, but rather the question that precipitated her letter.
The woman of Princeton wanted to know about navigating life’s most important relationships. They asked Patton about her friendships and her family. Women are looking for leaders. We crave models and mentors who navigate the mixed up world of career and family with honesty and genuine concern for ethics and happiness. And we want there to be an answer – some singular idea that will allow us to be content in a world ruled by chaos and change.
I want to dismiss Susan Patton out of hand. But here’s the rub: I did exactly what she suggests. I married while the marrying was good. While it wasn’t Princeton, I did leave university with a BA and Mrs. My path was far less calculated than anything Patton suggests. It was a romantic risk perpetuated by some pretty good luck. But it was my path – one I stumbled upon and one I choose every day.
There is plenty of advice out there at the moment: Lean In, opt-out, have it all, marry young. Patton’s suggestion to find an intellectual equal might be a good piece of advice (or an excuse to indulge in distraction from college academics), but it is only one of many pieces. The arduous task of culling the pile of ideas is instructive. It seems possible that in the gathering of information, in the act of amassing and ditching theories and secret keys, we discover our allusive goal. We forge our own paths.