“Princeton Mom” Susan Patton’s new book Marry Smart offers dumb advice for women. Riding a self-promotional wave launched by her 2013 open letter in the Daily Princetonian, Patton has written a guide telling Ivy League co-eds to snag Ivy League husbands while they’re still in college because, according to Princeton Mom, their desirability nears its expiration date once they graduate.
The real problem with Princeton Mom’s advice, however, is not that it’s elitist, reductive, and insulting to both genders – which it is. The bigger, scarier problem is that many women who heed her admonition to focus on finding “good” husbands, instead of good careers, will one day find themselves broke.
Image: JD Hancock
The fact that this grim reality eludes Princeton Mom is a head-scratcher, especially since she’s divorced. Although she operates a lucrative human resources company, many divorcees aren’t so lucky. One of the main reasons that 42 million women in this country live in poverty is that they can’t find decent jobs. Which is, frankly, a much bigger problem than not landing a decent husband.
Of course, Patton doesn’t concern herself with these women, nor does she acknowledge they exist, because she only addresses the lives of those at the tippy-top of the socioeconomic food chain. Reality must be thin up on Planet Princeton Mom, because Patton doesn’t appear to recognize that even women who “marry well” after matriculating from top-tier colleges can find themselves scrambling to cobble together a living when their marriages end.
I am one of those women. I attended an elite university and, although I was not looking for a husband as an undergrad, I did manage to locate a future one while still in my 20s. I am embarrassed to admit that I believed, to quote Princeton Mom, that “the cornerstone of [my] future and happiness” was “inextricably linked to the man” I married – especially since he was an Ivy League grad, thus “worthy” of me and my “intellectual equal.”
After I wedded my worthy guy -- at the ripe old age of 31! -- I had the luxury of dabbling in a writing career because I didn’t have to worry about making money. As most women in my peer group had the same lifestyle, and very few people in my extended family were divorced, I assumed that this was a safe decision. I’d heard about the grim lives of struggling single mothers, but I never imagined I’d be one of them. Poverty was something that happened to other women who didn’t have the benefit of a snooty education, and didn’t travel in my high-brow circles.
Now, ten years after I tumbled off the top of the cake, I am living a hard-scrabble life I never dreamed possible. My ex doesn’t pay child support (yes, even Ivy League husbands can get away with this) and the career I began post-divorce has provided me with only a five-figure income. While my annual salary certainly puts me well above poverty level, I actually make $20,000 below the median income in my city, one of the most expensive in the country. I can’t move to a more affordable locale because, legally, I can’t take my children away from my ex. Like many divorcees, I live paycheck-to-paycheck, and one crisis away from financial disaster.
There have been many excellent rebuttals to Princeton Mom’s counsel, but most focus on the egregiousness of her elitism and diminution of women. Maintaining an identity separate from being a wife and mother is important, but it’s not the brass-tacks issue. With the divorce rates hovering somewhere between 40-50%, Patton’s advice to 21st century women is downright dangerous. She might as well fasten her orange boa into a noose and hand it over to her readers.
Divorce isn’t the only potential problem facing women. Husbands die. They age out of careers. Health issues and bad housing markets bankrupt families. So unless a woman has a vast trust fund, or has cashed out of Silicon Valley with millions, she should take Princeton Mom’s advice for what it is: an impractical guide to a diminished future.
And what woman deserves that?