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(Different) Advice To Women Of Princeton, From An(other) Alumna

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Dear Princeton Women,

A fellow alumna, Susan Patton, caused quite a stir with her letter to you last week, in which she urgently advised you to “find a husband on campus before you graduate.”

Here’s my advice:

Don’t.

I’m not saying you should reject true love at Princeton should it come along. One thing on which Susan and I agree is that college (any college) is a spectacular place to meet someone. So spend four years meeting everyone you can -- make lifelong friends, find lovers, make connections and attachments and contacts and acquaintances. But DON’T make marriage your mission, which is what Susan seems to be suggesting. Instead, your goal should be to grab everything college has to offer in the time that you are there. You have way more than four years to meet a life partner -- but you have just four years to get a Princeton education.

So, for heaven’s sake, DON’T think that somehow this is your last chance for love. Susan’s warning that as you move from freshman to senior year you somehow “age out” of the desirable dating pool makes you sound like a carton of milk. It might have been truer when she was on campus (though, on the other hand, the male to female ratio was far more in her favor back then), but one of the many things your generation does differently is pay far less attention to things like age differences. Her warning is also a little insulting to men, with its suggestion that they are not looking for “erudite” but only for “pretty.” Grab these men while you are young, she says. But do you really want to marry a man like that?

DON’T think that you should be anywhere near ready for marriage by the time you graduate. You might be. But 22 is just a beginning. The four years of college are there so you can start to figure out who you are. You are trying on different versions of yourself and visions of your life, learning what fits. You can’t pledge yourself to someone else until you know yourself. DON’T rush that.

And DON’T mistake intellect for worthiness. It is important, yes. But so are compassion, humor, creativity, common sense, kindness... (fill in your own list of magnetic qualities here...) I think that is at the root of much of the outcry against Susan’s piece. “Smart women can’t (shouldn’t) marry men who aren’t at least their intellectual equal,” she wrote, simultaneously reducing SAT scores to the only measure of a man, and reducing men to the same superficial judgment to which she accuses them of subjecting women. Time was when women needed their men to be smart, which translated to successful, which translated to being able to support the family. But another thing your generation is redefining is the role of men and women both in relationships and in the workplace. You vow to create partnerships of equals, to choose men who would happily stay home with your child, at least for awhile, while you go to the office. Change up your criteria. They don’t have to be your mother’s or your grandmother’s.

Oh, and DON’T accept the part of Susan’s letter where she blithely reports that you should “forget about having it all, or not having it all, or leaning in or leaning out...” because, for “brilliant, well-educated” Princeton women, “overcoming professional obstacles” is not really a problem anymore. I wish she were right. But navigating the working world as a woman is still more complicated than it is for a man. I was at the same conference Susan mentions in her letter, the one on Alumni Day about Women and Leadership, and while she says that “you girls glazed over at our professional accomplishments and the importance of networking,” and wanted to talk about “finding the right man to marry,” that’s not what I heard in that room. Every young woman I spoke to wanted career advice.

I understand what Susan is trying to do. She is absolutely right that the most important life choice you make is the one about who you spend that life with, and she worries that you aren’t focused enough on that fact. What I don’t understand is what she expects you to do with her message. It’s not as if it hasn’t occurred to you to find romance while in college -- all it takes is a walk down Prospect on Saturday night to confirm that you're on it, really, you are. So her advice that this is the best your odds are ever going to be -- what practical use is it? Does she want you to fall into the old stereotype where women pursue and men are somehow trapped? Or does she want you to jump in too fast? Or to settle?

DON’T do any of that.

Instead focus, as everyone in any college anywhere should, on who you are and what you want and who you’d like to share it all with. Then forge ahead with the first two in the hope that the last part will follow. There is a rich and fulfilling life waiting outside the school gates. Seize it. And don’t worry about the odds.

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