A woman named Susan Patton who graduated from Princeton University in 1977 – now divorced, a corporate professional with sons currently at Princeton themselves – recently wrote a letter to The Daily Princetonian which has gone viral on the net. I read about it in The Telegraph of Kolkata on April 02, and the article had been lifted from The Times of London. In it, she gave some (unsolicited-) advice to girl students at Princeton: the gist of which is, ‘a) girls, you need to get married, b) you can’t afford to wait too long, you have a much shorter ‘shelf life’ than men, c) find a good match in Princeton itself, because never again will you have a choice of so many smart young men to pick from, remembering that as Princetonians, we have already almost priced ourselves out of the market’. She has been furiously criticized by feminists of all hues for spreading retrogressive ideas – some have even said it must be an April Fool joke – but she has stoutly defended her views, saying she has only girls’ best interests at heart ( see this link, and this).
So here’s my take. And this is only for level-headed people to comment upon, not loony sexists of either gender, mind you.
To start off, I do think there are both biological and psychological differences between men and women that cannot be simply wished away, and it is wise to take them into account while making life’s most important decisions. Smoking does harm women more than men in many ways, for instance, and men as a rule can handle loneliness much less efficiently on the whole. I do believe also that, as far as possible within the limits dictated by the minimal indispensable needs of social cohesion and stability, individuals should be free to make their own choices relating to matters like higher education, friends, careers and family life. I further believe that a lot of women, especially in the rich liberal western democracies, have been swinging too far on the side of material/professional achievement at the cost of private pleasures, and ending up often richer but unhappier in the long run, so it’s good that some people should tell them to go for a reality check (Reader’s Digest recently covered a middle-aged jet setting US government official who chose to quit her job to get back to the intimacy of family life which she had been missing sorely). And I have no sexist bias in this regard: I have always believed that too many men also sacrifice too much for the sake of career advancement, and for most people it turns out to be a bad bargain, seeing that they get ulcers and early heart attacks and broken families, and most don’t even end up at the top of the pile, where the big money and real power are. Billionaire and/or cabinet minister compensates for a lot of things, but imagine ending up as a retired faceless deputy general manager/vice-president of some company manufacturing nuts and bolts?
Having cleared the air, let me get down to some serious criticism of Ms. Patton’s views.
1. Girls just need to get married? Jane Austen is breathing down our necks with a vengeance. Sure, marriage is a wonderful thing – I am one of those who have always said so, and encouraged all my old boys and girls to get hitched once they are past their mid-20s and found a good partner. But putting marriage over and above everything else, and saying women need it much more than men? What utter rubbish! I can vouch from a lifetime’s experience, including my own, that if it’s a question of ‘need’, men on the average, once their youth is behind them, ‘need’ it far more than most women do, at least in our milieu! I wonder which planet Ms. Patton is coming from…
2. ‘Shelf life’? Yes, yes, I understand perfectly, of course, and sadly admit that for the vast majority of people it is probably a very valid and important concept too: if a girl is nothing more than a commodity to be transacted, if she is being hired on a long-term basis as a cook/housekeeper/childbearer/comforter/social trophy rolled into one, youth does give her some advantages which vanish rather quickly as compared with men, so… but what a tragic insult to all, men and women alike, who have even briefly dallied with ideas of love, or even mutual affection, regard, willing dependence, caring and being there for each other! God has been kind to me, and helped me know a few women including my wife who have near infinite shelf life: I cannot imagine they will grow less attractive and interesting to me with age; indeed, it is rather my prayer that I may still remain halfway interesting to them as I grow old. So I have an aching pity for the millions upon millions of young women who need to bother about their diminishing shelf lives, and it seems they are not restricted to ‘backward and orthodox’ countries like ours, either. This is the United States, in 2013!
3. This one is asinine, on at least three counts. a) Only Princetonians are smart? Since when? I can rattle off thousands of names of über smart people who never went to Princeton (or even Harvard or Yale or MIT or Stanford or Oxford or the Sorbonne for that matter). What sort of IQ/EQ/GK and level of self-esteem do you think they have who need to call themselves smart publicly, and link their ‘smartness’ to the educational institutions they attended? b) How much does smartness have to do with formal academics at all? There are thousands of top level writers, artists, sportsmen, criminal masterminds, generals, statesmen, scientists, philosophers and tycoons living and dead who have never gone to elite colleges (or dropped out because they found it boring and stultifying) – but they have had a lot of salaried types in the Princetonian mould working for them as glorified drudges! It is the same IIT myth of India on a much larger canvas: those who are really smart do things to change the world, those who are mediocre but have timid souls as well as brittle egos go for ‘elite’ institutions in the hope of being hired by the former tribe…unlike them, I am truly ambitious for my daughter, and I would much rather advise her to walk in the footsteps of a Dhirubhai Ambani than tell her success lies in getting into an IIT (or Princeton-) so that she may be given a job in one of the Ambani-run companies, or what is worse, marrying an IITian (or Princetonian) with a mid-level executive’s job with no real money, no more character than a cog in a wheel and no life to call his own! c) Ms. Patton, divorced, blames her failed marriage at least partly on the fact that her ex-husband was not a Princetonian. How pathetic so many people’s ideas remain right into old age, really. I read a book when I was a boy, titled Married to genius, which details how sad marriages between extraordinarily gifted people have often been – Tolstoy and Einstein and the Lawrences and Curies and Woolfs, besides analyzing the reasons why. Check out if you like the failed marriage of Stephen Hawking, too. And it goes without saying that I am talking of people who are vastly smarter than anything Princeton can ever ‘produce’, unless you think being a mere investment bank executive is an index of smartness, which of course any sane man will dismiss as rank idiocy. Then look around (which means, above all, read books!) and find out for yourself how many marriages between so-called ‘common, ordinary’ folks have been deeply satisfying lifelong, if not pure bliss, and you will begin to realize how much is needed from both parties besides smartness, and indeed how little that kind of ‘smartness’ counts, to make a happy marriage. If Ms. Patton’s marriage has been a failure, I can bet my shirt it had far more to do with lack of empathy and shared goals and mutual respect and interest in each other above all than any difference in their college grades and IQ levels can indicate.
These are the grown-up people peddling life-skills advice these days. I hope my young readers will appreciate even better after reading this essay why I insist on saying ‘A fool, when s/he grows old, merely becomes an old fool’…