By ANNA MAZARAKIS and RONAN O’BRIEN
Staff Writer and Contributor
Susan Patton ’77 made international headlines over the weekend in response to the letter she wrote to the editor of The Daily Princetonian, published on Friday.
The letter encouraged female Princeton students to find a husband at the University before graduation, stating that they would never again be surrounded by such a concentration of intellectually stimulating men.
The letter received immediate attention from students, alumni and the blogosphere, receiving an estimated 2,000 views on The Daily Princetonian’s website before the site became unavailable Friday afternoon. It also received about 1,000 views on the ‘Prince’s’ temporary website. The letter was republished by a number of national news outlets and blogs, including The Huffington Post, ABC, CNN and Jezebel.
Patton told the ‘Prince’ in an interview that she wrote the letter because she wanted to diversify the current advice being given to women at Princeton and other universities, which she said is geared only toward professional aspirations and development.
“The truth of the matter is, work-life balance means it’s not just work,” Patton said. “All I’m saying is to look around now because if you invest the first 10 years after college doing nothing but developing your career, you find yourself in your early 30s with a wonderful career and nothing to balance it with.”
The issue of work-life balance, which attracted international attention after
Wilson School professor Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80 published an article in The Atlantic last summer titled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” was discussed on campus during a public conversation between Slaughter and University President Shirley Tilghman on women’s leadership in February.
“Princeton is an educational institution. It’s not a marriage bureau,” Tilghman told the ‘Prince.’ “The purpose of a Princeton education is not to find a spouse; the purpose is to prepare yourself for a meaningful life. While it is the case that there are lucky individuals who find their life partner very early in life, I think, in general, the likelihood that you are the ages of 18 to 22, ready to make that decision, seems extremely unlikely to me, for most people. There are exceptions, and we celebrate those exceptions.”
University alumni have also expressed their views on Patton’s letter. Lisa Belkin ’82, a senior writer at The Huffington Post, was highly critical of the letter as a guest on the CBS show “This Morning.”
“If you do happen to meet your soulmate in college, wonderful,” Belkin said on the show. “That’s wonderful. But to say this is a test and here’s the finish line, and if you haven’t done it by the time you’re a senior, somehow you’ve ruined your life, I mean what kind of advice to the daughter I never had is that?”
Patton, however, said that Belkin missed the substance of her advice.
“I’m certainly not saying that if you don’t find a husband during your undergraduate years that you somehow have failed — clearly not. I’m not saying anything like that,” Patton said in response to Belkin’s television appearance. “We obviously see this differently, and that’s OK. One of the things the women’s movement has afforded us is the empowerment to voice our opinions and make choices, even if those choices, to some, seem retrogressive. I don’t see that there’s anything retrogressive about the desire to have children and be married, but Lisa Belkin seemed to think it was something 1950s about my advice.”
Slaughter, whose February dialogue with Tilghman was referenced by Patton in the letter, said she thought Patton’s thinking was behind the times.
“I think that this takes us firmly backwards,” Slaughter said. “The idea that you go to college to find a husband is something the women’s movement escaped long ago,”.
Belkin said that between the work of Slaughter, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, the women’s movement is facing a potentially pivotal moment for work-life change.
Director of the Program in Gender & Sexuality Studies Jill Dolan said public discourse should focus more on the issues that came up in Slaughter and Tilghman’s conversation rather than the contents of Patton’s letter.
“What I think is unfortunate about the whole thing is that the Slaughter-Tilghman conversation was actually really wonderful … for Susan Patton to reduce it to ‘You should be at Princeton to find a husband’ just seems to me really to throw the whole conversation onto a tangent,” Dolan said.
Former Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel, who is currently writing a book on the history of coeducation at Princeton, said she found Patton’s words surprising.
“I was perplexed that an alumna would choose to write in this fashion in 2013. It reminded me of the way people were thinking and speaking a half century ago,” Malkiel said. “My generation in college in the 60s was being told, ‘Not so fast; take advantage of the educational opportunities, grow up, turn into a mature, fully-formed human being. Marriage and family will come if you want them, but there’s a lot more to going to college than finding a mate.’”
Mary Gilstad ’15 said that she was not impressed by the national response condemning Patton.
“I see the article as the valid opinions of a recently divorced woman who did not get the intellectual stimulus she needed from her relationship and now wants to tell younger girls that they should not make the same mistake she did,” Gilstad explained.
She said she knew of other women who shared the sentiment and suggested that Patton might mean to advise female students to develop personal relationships with their peers to maintain their dating prospects in the future, when both parties are ready for marriage.
“In other words, finding a husband at Princeton does not mean marrying him at 22,” Gilstad explained. “It means finding men you like and want to stay in touch with so that when you are ready for marriage, you already have a circle of friends you are still in contact with and who are more likely to share your love of and aptitude for learning and engaging with the world on a high intellectual level.”
Wardah Bari ’16 said she saw Patton’s advice as elitist above everything else.
“I don’t think the Princeton name automatically makes people here better than anyone else,” Bari said. “Intelligence is a lot more than just having a degree from a name-brand school. Personally, I would want to marry someone who is not only intelligent, but also somebody I can relate to and have silly conversations — someone funny and witty.”
Tilghman also noted elitism in the letter’s problematic conclusions.
“I also find it difficult to absorb the elitist overtones of that letter, which appear to suggest that there are no people out there in the world who are smarter than Princeton graduates, and that you’d better strike while the iron’s hot and while you’re surrounded by lots of very smart people,” she said. “All of those views strike me as throwbacks to an era that I thought was well behind us.”
Most students, both male and female, are so heavily invested in their classes and extracurricular commitments that they don’t often plan for their personal life after graduation, according to Bari.
“I don’t think she necessarily understands that so many people on campus aren’t considering marriage or long-term relationships at this stage in their lives,” she said. “Most people here have so much going on that it’s really hard to even think about finding someone to settle down with.”
But Belkin said she doesn’t necessarily think that students have lost track of any romantic desires.
“The most important choice you make in your life is who you are going to spend that life with,” Belkin said. “It’s not unimportant and, yes, you shouldn’t lose track of that fact in the march toward professional glory. But I don’t think any [Princeton students] lost track of that fact … I don’t think anyone at Princeton has forgotten that they would like to be in love.”
Patton’s letter also argued that female students should start looking for husbands earlier since they lose a class of potential mates every year, alluding to the fact that women cannot date younger men.
Namkyu Oh ’16 said that he thought Patton’s claim that women would ultimately marry older men was legitimate but noted that he had never consciously chosen not to date an older woman.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with guys dating women who are older than them,” Oh explained. “But because there’s a norm that women aren’t usually the older ones in relationships, it sets up this dynamic that men don’t hang out with women who are older than them, making it hard to date them in general.”
Though the article has elicited negative public reactions — including claims that Patton’s letter is anti-feminist and retrogressive — Patton said she has also privately received positive feedback.
“I have been warmed by the number of letters I’ve gotten from women who are on campus and women who are on other campuses saying it’s exactly what they’ve always thought, but it’s so politically unpopular to say such a thing that they haven’t been having the conversation, but now they are,” she said. “I’ve also gotten so many letters from parents saying that this is precisely the conversation they wanted to have with their own daughters and didn’t even know how to begin; they didn’t even know how to broach the topic.”
Instead of focusing on the idea of Princeton women finding a husband, Dolan said she wishes that Patton “had made other suggestions about how Princeton students, in general, can see themselves as part of a larger social framework.”
Regardless of the reactions on both sides, Patton said she is not swayed.
“The response doesn’t change my thinking; it doesn’t change my opinion,” she said. “This is, again, advice, and the nature of all advice is take it, don’t take it.”
Patton, who is an executive coach and human resource consultant, said she gives advice professionally. In the future, she said she would like to have a radio talk show to continue to give advice to a larger audience.
Contributor Seth Merkin Morokoff contributed reporting.