The cartoon that ran on Monday parodying Susan Patton’s opinion letter easily summarized the most socially indicative part of her piece: Titled “A universe of women,” it depicted a male stick figure surrounded by multiple beckoning women. This was in response to Patton’s statement that “the universe of women” her junior son can marry is “limitless.” Although she seems to praise Princeton women throughout the piece, reminding them of their “soaring intellect” and saying that women have higher standards for their significant others than men do, it’s little statements like “universe of women” sprinkled throughout her essay, that show us exactly why the status of women is not where it should be by now.
Obvious in Patton’s letter is the suggestion that women have to take an active role in finding a husband by being “nicer,” or as I read it, flirtier, towards guys, because men have so many choices while women’s are dwindling year after year. Women are fighting a steeply downward sloping demand, unlike Patton’s sons, who can essentially take their pick. What Patton suggests is similar to the message implicit in every cheap teen magazine — that women have to bend themselves to men’s expectations, or else end up in an unsatisfying relationship with an “unworthy” man. Besides addressing female Ivy League students, it’s not really so different from Seventeen running an article about what nail polish colors to wear to attract guys. Both perpetuate a self-conscious mindset: What do guys want, and am I doing enough to fulfill their expectations?
Although finding a compatible significant other is a considerably important objective, I find the deliberateness with which Patton, as well as society, treats this goal unsettling. Rather than letting a Princeton relationship happen naturally, you must keep it as a goal in the back of your mind. When you’re a freshman talking to a guy in your ECO 100: Introduction to Microeconomics precept, you should think to yourself, “Wouldn’t he make a great husband someday?” And even though you were already polite to him, it would really help your cause if you could be a “little nicer.”
It’s sad that women today are so much more capable of independence than ever before, and yet, this attitude still exists, its vestiges still carried along by women’s magazines and people like Patton. Asking what men expect only gives them the power to define a woman’s role, which seems like a self-induced backwards step. Just having the mindset that a man has a universe of women at his disposal while a woman does not is damaging to the perception and status of the female in society.
This insecurity also exists in the workplace. In the newly published book “Lean In,” which Patton briefly references, Sheryl Sandberg talks about how women feel insecure in the workplace, preferring to check off boxes and do what others say than to break the rules and take risks for the possibility of a great reward. They ask the same questions in the workplace that Patton implicitly suggests they do in relationships — what does my company expect me to do, and am I fulfilling its expectations? In one example, Sandberg talks about how at a conference, the women would wait for acknowledgement that they belonged at the table before sitting, while the men simply sat down without hesitation. It is this self-consciousness that inhibits women, that seems to willingly allow others to define a woman’s role for her.
The most detrimental part of Patton’s article is not that she seems to suggest young marriage, or that she suggests degrees earned are deterministic of intelligence. It is the deliberateness with which she suggests women treat, and essentially pursue, their relationships, as if chasing after a Princeton guy makes a Princeton marriage any more likely. Rather than being so mindful of pursuing a Princeton relationship and willingly subjugating themselves to external expectations, women should disregard those constraints and live their lives upon their own accord — not just to try to snag a husband.
Although all of Patton’s advice stems from her very valid suggestion that women should maintain high standards for their future husbands, she imparts an attitude of desperation — act now while you are still young, preferably while you’re still younger than the majority of guys at Princeton. She does say that women can decide whom to marry; indeed, choosing an educated man is a pretty good decision by all accounts. But the choices are limited, so women have to act fast and act purposefully. Patton says nothing of the sort to men.
Barbara Zhan is a freshman from Plainsboro, N.J. She can be reached at email@example.com.