NEWS: Alumna letter generates national attention

Courtesy of Princeton Weekly Bulletin Archives © 2013 The Daily Princetonian Publishing Co.

Courtesy of Princeton Weekly Bulletin Archives © 2013 The Daily Princetonian Publishing Co.

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.


15 thoughts on “NEWS: Alumna letter generates national attention

  1. In my view the valuable lesson to be gleaned from Susan Patton’s letter is that each person must take responsibility to foster their own fulfillment (or “happiness”) throughout their lives and to never expect a spouse or any other person of whatever level of education to do it for them. To me Patton’s letter is nothing more than a mean jab at her ex-husband wrapped up in a pat on her own insecure back.

  2. People are dumb. This woman was brave enough to put down on paper things that I’m sure a lot of mothers think, and everyone ripped her for it. She didn’t say it was right for everyone. Oh well. H8ers gonna h8!

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  4. Whatever issues my relationship with my mother may have presented, I am profoundly grateful that she never did this to me while I was an undergraduate — and that would have been in the days when it was de rigeur for young college women at least to be engaged by Graduation Day. As it happened, I am (a) male and (b) still married to the girl I met in college — but you can take it to the bank that we did not send our brave and beautiful daughter to an Ivy League institution (from which she graduated with distinction) in order for her to find a spouse.

  5. The “fact that women cannot date younger man” is obviously a fact in PATTON’s world, and not the Prince’s fact. There could have been a better phrase used by the Prince writer or editor (like “alluding to Patton’s view that women cannot date younger men…”), but clearly the Prince is not endorsing her view – only stating that to Patton, it is (apparently) a fact.

  6. I find the whole conversation on this topic interesting, especially the vehement objections being raised from some quarters to what is essentially a nugget of advice offered by someone with a bit of actual life experience and who was once (if not still) a member of the community at Princeton.
    I’m sure that her detractors may wish that she had not been a member of the community, because then they could choose to filter her views out of their consciousness, but unfortunately she is one of them, and cannot be ignored.
    As to her views; I would expect such advice to be meaningless to 20 – 22 year olds, who really are just kids at that age and not experienced enough in life to be able to make such momentous decisions, although I believe that it could start the thinking processes off, so her efforts may not be a total waste I suppose.
    The fact is that choice of romantic partner is absolutely critical to ones life, with far reaching and permanent implications that transcend our professional careers. There is something asinine in the idea of separation of the “working life” from the rest of our “life”. We only have one life and its fully integrated and not divisible.
    Why then this strange reaction to what should be (on the face of it), benign advice about identifying potential romantic partners earlier in life?
    I believe the answer lies in our cultural connotations about the word “marriage”. Marriage is supposed to be forever, when all the data shows that to be unlikely, however the connotation is there. We know that if our children at age 20-22 get married then there is an extreme risk of divorce and all that comes with that (primarily financial ruin). What parent would not be concerned about that prospect?
    If we thought in terms of serial significant partners throughout our lives rather than some notion of permanent wedded bliss to the first person we fall in love with then perhaps such a prospect would not be so confronting. If we knew that we would have potentially 3 or even 4 significant others throughout our life then the idea of students selecting the first one at university would not be so challenging. “But what about their studies?” I hear some cry; “how can they focus on study once they experience the pleasures of fornication!”. And then finally the root cause parental fear is voiced: “How will they grow up to be good productive citizens, if they’re stuck with kids!’.

    Children and family are the issue. When to have them? Nature clearly tells us it should be when we’re younger. Why? We have higher energy levels, our DNA is fully intact, we have time and dare I say it but we’re more flexible in our thinking. We have grandparents available who should be experienced in child rearing to help us. This model of life is not fully compatible with the world we have built and does not suit our economic masters, who want us to roll off the university assembly line as productive workers ready to start our “careers”. The rest of our life, presumably, is on hold at that time.

    Having children is one of life’s greatest joys and to not participate in that is to avoid one of the great natural objectives and processes of our existence and much has been said about that which I don’t need to re-iterate here. Given that, why shouldn’t this be something that university students be properly informed about?
    Why should we not be giving advice to our students about how best to select a significant other and about the ramifications that go with that of a possible future family?
    Why deny our evolutionary imperatives?
    It’s because of the structure of our society and our role as consumers of products in the greater economy, but that’s a wider topic. Let me just say that there are some barriers to having family when young, which give rise to the kinds of hysterical reactions we are seeing to Susan Pattons advice.
    Until we can work to remove the barriers, accept our biological imperatives and build a harmonious society accepting of the serial nature of our romantic attachments rather than an unworkable “until death do us part” ideology then I believe we will continue to produce people disappointed with their lives, such as Susan Patton appears to be.
    Until that utopia can be engineered we will continue to recoil in shock at the suggestion that romantic connections are at least as important to our ultimate happiness as our “careers” will ever be.

  7. Just a question, but is it possible to get a transcript or a recording of the conversation between Slaughter and Tilghman? I too find that the national attention around this letter has detracted from what might have been a very interesting discussion — any chance the Prince could provide a link?

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