You’ve probably read about the “Princeton mom,” Susan A. Patton, who last week wrote an open letter to the editor of her alma mater’s student newspaper. In it, she didn't implore current Princeton co-eds to work their hardest at school, hold true to their highest personal values or use their intellect and talent to do good in the world, but to "find a husband on campus before you graduate."
That one little letter has ignited a firestorm not just in the media but in living rooms and meeting places across the country. (It reminds me of what President Abraham Lincoln said when he met Harriet Beecher Stowe: “So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”)
Patton (class of 1977) married a non-Princetonian, had two sons (both Princetonians) and runs an executive coaching business in New York City. She claims she was just trying to help. “For most of you,” she wrote, “the cornerstone of your future and 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.”
How charming. How ’50s. How … not helpful.
(MORE: Why Some of Us Reject Marriage)
Getting Your MRS. Degree
Patton further noted that she was partly motivated to write in response to a February conference on women’s leadership she had attended on campus, which featured a conversation between the head of the Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Princeton's president, Shirley Tilghman. In breakout sessions, Patton took it upon herself to broach the “snag a husband” conversation. Apparently seeking a wider audience, she penned her now infamous letter to the paper.
Among the many (many) people who took exception to Patton’s throwback attitude was Tilghman. The president told the newspaper: “Princeton is an educational institution. It’s not a marriage bureau. The purpose of a Princeton education is not to find a spouse; the purpose is to prepare yourself for a meaningful life.”
She added that “While it is the case that there are lucky individuals who find their life partner very early in life,” it’s unlikely that people 18 to 22 are “ready to make that decision.”
Bravo, Shirley! Yet I don’t feel compelled to rebut Susan Patton or attempt to dissuade her from her opinions. I remember trying to debate women who clung to the rules of The Rules in the '80s — aka the book that teaches girls how to trick a guy into marrying them.
This is America, and Susan Patton is entitled to her opinions, however potentially harmful to the advancement of women they might be. And I won’t get catty and note that she has recently gotten divorced (from that non-Princetonian) or bring up that childhood classic by Aesop involving a fox and some grapes that were out of his reach.
But this whole brouhaha did get me thinking over the weekend about some of my own college behavior and tastes. At the ripe old age of 22, I was engaged to my college sweetheart. Patton might have applauded me, but more likely not: We attended a plebian public university.
There’s a reason they say no one knows more than a college sophomore. As I reflected back on that era of my life, I came up with five things that I loved deeply and knew I always would. I'm pretty sure I don't need to say how grateful I am that I didn’t vow to stick with them until death did us part.
(MORE: At This Stage: What We Regret)
5 Things I Loved in College (and Don’t Now)
1. My fiancé: The wedding was planned for the month after graduation. He’d have been 24 and I, 23. P. was a great guy: smart, handsome, athletic, close to his family, honest and funny as hell. We’d been together four years at that point and were very much in love. But we were 23 and 24, and somehow I had the prescience (and guts) to call it off.
Through — what else, Facebook — we met again a couple of years ago and became friends (as opposed to “friends”). He’s still a terrific guy (now widowed, with three adult children) and still funny, close to his family, nice-looking (if bald and not quite the hunk he was in 1981). But ambitious or interested in seeing the world? Not a whiff. He was downsized from a formerly good job a few years ago, and was more than happy to use that as an excuse to move to Florida, where his older sisters live. Still desiring a little income and health insurance, he told me that he just took a job driving a city bus. (Oh, Nor-ton…!)
While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with driving a bus or eating dinner at lunchtime, the thought that that could have been my life sends a shiver down my spine.
2. Walls bedecked with rock posters and fine art reproductions: My dorm room and off-campus apartment were the Louvre meets the Rock Hall of Fame. I had some beauts (Hendrix at Monterey, Klimt’s “The Kiss,” something Van Gogh), and I could not imagine that I would ever stop loving the look. Um, I did.
3. Dressing in clothes from Goodwill: I was sooo cool in my beaded sweaters, clutch bags, ’50s dresses, bowling shoes and bag-lady winter coats. These things weren’t flattering then, and today, the last thing I want to look is older.
4. “Wynona Forever”: OK, so that was Johnny Depp’s, not my mistake, but committing anything in ink to your skin at that age is both almost guaranteed to be regretted and not look so fab when you’re 64. The first time I saw tattoo parlors was on my first trip to California, the summer after freshman year. A friend and I were visiting his relatives in San Diego, and I came thisclose to getting a yin yang permanently emblazoned somewhere near my yin yang.
5. 1970s and ’80s style trends: Any of these ring a bell for you: bean bag chairs, fondue pots, Cat Stevens, macramé plant holders (by the dozens), clove cigarettes, hair à la Farrah or Bo, pukka beads or Frye boots?
A Parting Word of Advice
Dear Girls of Princeton (and college students everywhere): Enjoy your youth, love what you love, relish this time. But don't make the mistake of believing things won't change, because if there's one thing you can be sure of, they will.
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