Old-Fashioned Advice to Princeton Women

Russell K. Nieli

Well-educated and financially successful men, when seeking a lifetime mate, usually prefer women who are shorter than they are, a little less intelligent, and who earn less money. They also often seek women who are significantly younger. This is a fact of everyday observation that only the naïve or ideologically blinded could miss. Men also prefer pretty women and will often marry down in terms of education and brains to snap up an unusually good-looking or sexually attractive woman. For most women, their sexual attractiveness to men is greatly diminished by their mid-30s compared to what it was a decade earlier, as female sexual allure – for reasons deeply rooted in evolutionary biology – is closely tied to female fertility value. These differing mate selection criteria work to the detriment of the very smartest and best educated women, particularly if they are only average to below-average in the looks department. A man with even above-average intelligence is usually not a good marital prospect for an exceptionally bright woman who has 20 or 30 IQ points on him. This is true even if the man is uncommonly kind and generous and the couple otherwise compatible. When the intellectual and educational level of the couple diverges too much, especially when the detriment is in the male direction, prospects for a happy marriage decrease considerably.

All this is well known to people of worldly experience. Older people usually have much greater insight into these matters than adolescents and undergraduate college students, who often labor under the burden of romantic illusions and ‘60s-era feminist shibboleths unconstrained by the wisdom and experience of age. It is for this reason that the young and naïve are in such need of wise counseling from their elders. Alas, nowadays they generally receive little of this. In an attempt to rectify this situation at Princeton, Susan Patton, a self-described “Jewish mother” and member of Princeton’s class of 1977, published a letter in the Daily Princetonian earlier this year that offered some motherly advice to Princeton women.

In her short missive Patton stated or implied many of the facts about male/female relationships alluded to above and suggested to Princeton women that they may be focusing too much on the development of their career potential to the neglect of the equally important concern of finding a suitable husband and life companion. It was often said in the past that women attended college mainly to obtain their MRS. degree and had little interest in genuine learning or career development. The husband search was said to be the primary focus of their college activities. To whatever extent this may have been true in the past, today at elite universities like Princeton, Patton correctly pointed out, the pendulum has clearly swung in the opposite direction insofar as women are often so exclusively focused on their career development that they are neglecting the equally important concern of finding a suitable mate and father for their future children. She also suggested that the college years were the best time for developing enduring, same-sex friendships.

Needless to say, most of this was heresy of a high order among certain types of feminists, male and female alike, and Patton’s letter touched off a storm of protest that reached well beyond the precincts of Princeton. Op-ed pieces in national magazines and newspapers, internet sites of radio and TV stations, together with innumerable internet blogs and webzines took up the ensuing controversy, much of which was heated and unseemly. Patton’s letter and subsequent talk at Princeton was still reverberating months later.

Some of Patton’s critics clearly misunderstood what she was saying. Patton did not, for instance, contend that all women should be married or that all women are heterosexual. Nor did she say that it is impossible for Princeton women to find suitable mates after college or when they are no longer young. What she did say was that for many extremely bright women – at least those whom men do not find exceptionally pretty – it is usually a lot easier to find a suitable mate on a campus like Princeton, and at a time when one is of college age, than it is after college when one is in the work world and perhaps considerably beyond one’s college years. To non-feminists (or post-feminists) this was all just good, wholesome, homespun motherly advice. It would be music to the ears of any Jane Austen fan.

“For most of you [Princeton women],” Patton wrote, “the cornerstone of your future happiness will be inextricably linked to the man you marry, and you will never again have this concentration of men who are worthy of you. Here’s what nobody is telling you: Find a husband on campus before you graduate.” She went on to explain the difficulty that very bright and well-educated women have in finding men of comparable intellect and education: “Men regularly marry women who are younger, less intelligent, less educated. [And] it’s amazing how forgiving men can be about a woman’s lack of erudition if she is exceptionally pretty. [But] smart women can’t (shouldn’t) marry men who aren’t at least their intellectual equal. As Princeton women we have almost priced ourselves out of the market. Simply put, there is a very limited population of men who are as smart or smarter than we are. And I say again – you will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of you.” She also went on to say that women should keep their eye out for marriageable men beginning in their freshman year since college men do not usually date women from the classes above them, and thus, as they move from freshman through senior year, college women face an ever-shrinking dating pool.

Patton was subsequently attacked on the website of the Daily Princetonian by commentators accusing her of everything from sexism to elitism to anti-feminism. The passion and vitriol of some of her accusers was palpable, suggesting to many discerning readers that she had touched upon an inconvenient truth that many Princeton men and women were reluctant to acknowledge or discuss. Several of the web comments were positive, however, and a number of commentators offered supporting testimony to Patton’s major claims. Here are a few:

I was at Princeton back in the Seventies, when women’s bathrooms were scarce, faculty hostile, and feminism meant something. I am still as feminist as they come, battered but unbowed in the cause of gender equality. However, 35 years out, the life stories of my friends and frenemies do suggest that Patton has a point. Never again will you have easier access to pretty good marital prospects, if that’s how your inclinations run. (Nor will you ever find yourself in a greater hive of scum and villainy, but that’s another story.) Don’t put Patton down for antiquated language or Austenesque practicality. Unless one plans to join the Marines or explore the mancamps of North Dakota, statistically speaking, she’s right.

I am a physician and so is my wife. Our daughter will be a senior at a very good university where she will graduate magna cum laude and possibly Phi Beta Kappa. … Ms. Patton is telling a hard truth that is a bitter pill for many to swallow. I am amazed at the vitriol [directed] at her for expressing well-intentioned advice. Frankly I believe that nothing leads to real happiness more than a stable marriage, family, and life-long friends. Everything else, including a career, pales. Ms. Patton has my admiration.

Patton said that feminism has reached a point that it basically bullies women who Do want to have a traditional family with kids to feel somewhat ashamed about it. All the comments I’ve read [on the Princetonian website] affirm this. I’m one of those Princeton girls who Do want to get traditionally married and have kids and I’m hiding behind anonymity because of disrespectful people like you [on this website].

I wonder if, [when we Princeton students are older] and have more life experience, we’ll look back on Ms. Patton’s address and view things differently. To borrow from Al Gore, perhaps Ms. Patton’s advice is really just “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Finally someone who dares to speak honestly. … When you are in your early 20s you [believe thinking like Susan Patton’s] is shallow. [But] when you are in your early 30s and are desperate to find the right guy to set up a family you wish you had listened carefully to this advice!

Shame should be on the guys who ridicule or are dismissive of her letter, while busy pursuing their own career well into their late 30s, all the time thinking, “If I’m successful, the women and the family will follow later.” Biology dictates that women don’t have this option and rarely do women discuss how to prioritize biology, career, family and college. The playing field just isn’t the same for women and men. I applaud Susan for offering her pragmatic perspective.

I think Mrs. Patton was merely looking to point out how difficult it is [for women] past a certain age to find a mate of the same [intellectual] caliber while you are pursuing your own success. There are far too many intelligent and successful women who are married to men who are far from being their [intellectual] equals.

[What Susan Patton says] is so true. I grew up on the same nonsense [about prioritizing early career over family] and nobody explained that having children [for a woman] isn’t an option that will be eternally available. It wasn’t until I woke up and became incredibly disappointed in the corporate culture I had wasted years of my life on that I realized I wanted something [more] than devoting myself [to an employer]. … Whoever came up with the concept that women should be expected to dedicate themselves to [outside] work, with family being a side note, should be shot.

Susan Patton’s letter was hardly the last word on marriage, career, or the way to a meaningful and satisfying life for educated women. It was little more than a mild reminder to very bright college females that they will never again have the same dating and romantic opportunities that they enjoy on a college campus like Princeton, and that career success is only one element – and usually not the most important – in the long-term happiness that they seek. That such common-sense advice should be considered controversial and subjected to nasty dismissals tells us something about the fragile state of reason on so many of our college campuses.

Russell Nieli is a Senior Preceptor in Princeton University’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, and a Lecturer in Princeton’s Politics Department. He is the author, most recently, of Wounds That Will Not Heal: Affirmative Action and Our Continuing Racial Divide, published by Encounter Books. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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