In case you haven’t been following this splash in the internet pond, on March 29th, The Daily Princetonian published a letter written by Susan A. Patton, a class of 1977 alumnae. She has two Princetonian sons and entitled her letter “Advice for the young women of Princeton: the daughters I never had.”
It seems that Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead has reignited debate about the role of women and about the state of feminism. I am currently reading the book and will have much more to say about it later. For now, I say that I am glad women of my generation are grappling with these issues; with the legacy of our mothers’ struggles for equal rights.
Then there’s Newton’s third law — Every Action Has An Equal and Opposite Reaction. Sure, he’s talking about something physical world-ish, but I believe it holds true in culture. The open letter has drawn it’s own action and reaction. It seems that this part in particular caught the eye of many:
For most of you, 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.
Here’s what nobody is telling you: Find a husband on campus before you graduate.
Patton seems to be channeling Phyllis Schlafly, trying to assert that the truly radical move in feminism is to espouse retrofitted nostalgia. A simpler time. A time when peace and joy spread like a warm blanket across the land. A time when everyone had well-defined roles and fell to their knees praising strict social order. A time that never actually existed.
The more I thought about what Patton said, leaning out to get a wider view, the more I can see a spark of truth in what she said. In my life, the key relationship absolutely is the one with my husband and I’ve seen my friends suffer as marriages crumble in the most painful of ways. That’s not necessarily a poor choice made decades ago as much as it is the unintended consequences of the unpredictable nature of life. I also agree with Patton that college relationships are unique — it’s a group of people who have been shaped by the same culture and times, people who have similar experiences during a time of immense personal growth and change. Without a doubt, shared experience during critical growth periods and subsequent notions of belonging are powerful anchors.
I wouldn’t call it worthiness, though.
And ***gasp*** I didn’t marry someone I met in college.
Here’s where I unearth a tiny nugget of agreement and get the hell out of the mine.
Patton may have a point for some people in some situations. The problem is that she generalizes that to The One Right Way To Live Your Life. I may have issues with the way feminism plays out in our society, but its core tenets hold the center for me. Feminism is about choice – a woman should feel supported to choose her own path free of gender stereotypes.
If her choice is getting married at age 22 and living a life that looks like a 1950s television show, that’s fabulous. If her choice is to “lean in” to career and never marry or have kids, that’s equally fabulous. If her choice is to live outside those two boxes in any number of ways – lesbian, cohabitator, single mother, mountain climber, loner in a cabin in the woods, loner in an urban jungle – all are fabulous as long as they are freely chosen paths.
This is the problem that I have with many vocal conservatives in our society. It’s the old patriarchal approach — There is one way to live your life and I know what it is. That’s what I reject about Ms. Patton’s letter, not necessarily that the contents are incorrect but the Mother/Father knows best message behind it.
As a person who came from humble beginnings, it’s pretty clear to me that Patton is conflating the notions of advantage bestowed by being born into privilege and individual gifts and achievements. I wish I didn’t have to say this, but a person’s worthiness is not tied to whether her parents can afford to send her to Princeton. However, she will have doors opened to her if she is lucky enough to be born into wealthy circumstances. And, yes, that is all a matter of luck, not of some sort of fantastical notion of meritocracy. I suspect this is well beyond Patton’s original intent, though, because people who benefit most from the lie refuse to see it.
Of course, this is wider than feminism or Princeton – it speaks to the nature of power, to how royal families become inbred, to the ways we are blind to America’s institutionalized caste system.
Those are topics for another day.