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Friday, April 5, 2013

Of Husband Hunting and Diamond Mines

There has been a tremendous dust-up in response to Susan Patton's (a member of the Princeton class of 1977) letter to the Daily Princetonian.  In her letter, Patton exhorts Princeton women to begin the task of husband hunting in their freshman year, warning them that “[f]or 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.”

Below is my response, a version of which was also published in the Daily Princetonian:

I have to say that while I disagree with most of Patton’s assertions, I don’t find them especially offensive. After all, women can take Patton’s advice or leave it. While Patton’s tone does seem overwrought and off key in several respects, I don’t find her message much different from any other piece of alumni advice. In fact, I find myself uneasier with the assumption by some women that Patton’s point of view is one that should be suppressed. I don’t agree with much of what Patton says. But neither do I think that Patton’s view should be silenced. Haven’t men told women to shut up long enough without women telling each other (for it is mostly women doing the silencing) to shut up? I for one think Patton ought to speak louder and longer to her points. If she did, we might engender fuller and more constructive engagement on the issue of women’s family lives.
I am especially uneasy with the class and race privilege evidenced in the outraged responses to Patton’s letter. There seems to be at work here an implicit understanding that elite college women who look for early marriage with classmates (or perhaps for any marriage at all) are turning their backs on stellar opportunities or are being untrue to bedrock feminist principles such as autonomy or equality. This is problematic because although women come in all stripes, too often norms of feminism are shaped by the elite few. Feminism has been and continues to be the province of the wealthy, the white and the well-connected. Many of these women want to have it all or want a larger piece of the pie. Other women might be content to get any of it at all or might be content with some of the crumbs from the pie much less a piece of it. It is difficult to frame a broad-based emancipatory feminist program in the face of such starkly contrasting metaphors for female success.
The contrast may be especially bleak when comparing wealthy, white women to black women from poor and working class backgrounds. In the context of marriage, some wealthy white women, for instance, may be far more likely to have access to well-paying jobs or other resources that obviate the need for a spouse’s financial support. Moreover, given a higher rate of placement in elite firms and more frequent residence in upscale neighborhoods, wealthy white women who do choose to marry may have far more opportunity to find a like-minded mate at places outside of the elite colleges or universities that they may have attended.
For poor or working class black women and for some other women of color, there is often less available in the way of career or spousal choice. Even equipped with an elite college degree, highly educated black women from poor or working class backgrounds often earn less than their white, wealthy counterparts, making it harder for them to support themselves alone. Highly educated black women from poor or working class backgrounds are also less likely than their wealthy white peers to live and work in settings where there are large numbers of people who share their interests or values. Yes, it may be possible to find a suitable mate in other settings. I’ll call such mates diamonds in the rough. Then again, it may not be possible. There are far more rocks in the world than diamonds in the rough. While solid and dependable, a rock is, well, just a rock.
This is not to say that elite colleges and universities are brimming over with cut and polished diamonds in the form of highly suitable mates. But I think some of us protest entirely too much when we eschew the seeming elitism of remarks such as Patton’s “you will never again have this concentration of men who are worthy of you.” Certainly I’d adjust that statement to read men or women; heteronormativity is its own form of tyranny. And maybe Patton’s statement it is a bit too emphatic; never is a long time, after all. But the fact is, even if adopting the most anti-elitist stance possible, a lot of us do think this way. We just don’t like to say it and if anyone else says it we cry foul.
Does this mean that I would give my daughter the advice that Patton is proposing? Absolutely not. If my daughter is lucky enough to attend Princeton or a school like it, I want her to view her college years as a momentous first step in a life full of grand possibilities of all sorts. Marriage may or may not be one of them. But, I would also make sure that my daughter understands that for some women, well educated or not, choices and opportunities, if they exist at all, may be narrower and more constrained. Only with this sort of honest acknowledgement of the conditions facing some women can we achieve significant change for all women.