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Saturday, April 06, 2013

Susan Patton's wisdom

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’…


Rajdeep said...

Too inexperienced to comment on this.

However, I agree with what you said.

What does it matter anyway, what some so called celebrities say?

Look forward to the debate here.

DevDas said...

Dear Suvro-da,
very interesting article indeed. I believe that we men need to be cared for after a certain age much more than women.

The belief of having a "trophy wife" is quite an age old part in our society as well. Recently I read a short piece in Hindustan Times:


which I want to share with you and your readers. I had a lengthy chat with my parents and wife and we all reached to a conclusion, that definitely these days we pay no heed or respect to inner beauty. Sad to say.

Best regards

Debotosh Chatterjee said...

I recently came across something similar to this blog-post ...


Rashmi Datta said...

Dear Sir,

The only conclusion I can come to after reading your post and the links carefully is that Susan Patton is a frustrated, foolish woman who has done nothing significant in her life and hence has no respect for herself.

Your post has set me thinking Sir and I have a few points to discuss-

1. Only stupid, lazy and irresponsible women who have no real aspirations and goals in life will say that the only end of their life is getting married. By real aspirations and goals, I mean, wanting to be a good lawyer or law maker or judge or writer or director or singer or dancer or teacher and not only a faceless executive in an MNC or a dishonest journalist or a BPO worker.

2. Indeed, what an insult it is to both myself and my partner if I enter into marriage only because I want to use my partner as a supplier of money ,luxury and safety and am willing to pay back by doing a host of chores for my partner including bearing children! How disgustingly do we devalue marital relationship if the above is the case!
If someone does wish to join in matrimony, I think, it should be because each of the partners wishes to be with each other, cares for each other and each of them is willing to try their luck together.

3. The second point of Ms. Patton’s advice is extremely revolting and in my opinion every self- respecting woman will/should feel that way (I don’t have the typical feminist in mind). Only a woman who does not think of herself and other women as human beings can say such a thing. The saddest part, as far as India is concerned, women themselves do not think of themselves as anything other than a commodity.
In a certain Hindi serial, a grandfather says this to his son about his own granddaughter‘s marriage–“Your daughter may seem very dear to you but the truth is that she has nothing attractive or special about her that will get her a good husband. So, we will have to ‘present’ her in such a way that she will ‘seem’ to be attractive, if only temporarily, to the suitors.”

From the place I come from, girls are as a rule asked to smile and walk in front of the would be- in-laws before the final decision of the marriage is taken. The saddest part is that neither the girl nor her parents have any problem with such demeaning practices.

4. I completely agree with your third point. If anything, I have understood to a certain extent about who has real power and money and hence I will never make the foolish mistake of calling a person earning one lakh rupees a rich man or the General Manager of an MNC a powerful man!
The very fact that Ms. Patton makes such ridiculous remarks proves that a fool who studies in an elite college only becomes an elite fool.

This is an eye-opening post because it shows that the scenario of western developed countries is not as bright as I had imagined. Thank you for this post.

Warm regards

Navin said...

Dear Sir,

is it not obvious, that people who did not have a happy marriage should not be speaking about marriages ??
I think someone should let her know about that . A bad experiment does not give you an information.

with regards,


Saikat Chakraborty said...

Dear Sir,

Following the news of the death of Margaret Thatcher, I was reading about her and came to know that she was married to Denis Thatcher till her death. Margaret Thatcher was at the power centre for a little over a decade and yet had no problems in having a healthy family life with someone not actively involved in politics. It is such a stark contrast to what Susan Patton said in her article. The article only points to the fact that Ms. Patton is nothing more than a conceited and self-centred individual and the fact that she doesn't have any achievements besides being a Princetonian and she has only tried to give voice to her frustrations in a seemingly intellectual fashion. However, I agree with what she said that women should be able to take their own decisions and stand by them, even if it is home-making.

Sir, thanks for this post. It is always a delight to read your critical analysis what others (be it an ex-Princetonian or VP of Google) think.

With regards,

ananya mukherjee said...

Dear Sir,
The insane Ms Patton doesn't regard girls any better than mere commodities which makes her comment so foolishly.I am sure that her unsuccessful marriage has rendered her effete so that now she is giving vent to her frustration in this way.However, what is frightfully asinine is that women of Ms Patton's ilk react furiously whenever there is news regarding mere molestation of women and the implication of their reaction is that the honor of women is at stake!Ms Patton should know that a woman is not a mere body and there are men who want something more from women apart from their physical features.And marrying for the sake of using one's spouse as a perennial supplier of money is revolting. I think this idea spreads and presents consumerism as a resourceful aspect of life and presents Patton as nothing more than a typical middle class idiot no matter how much she claims to belong from an elite institution.
In this regard I fully agree with what Pavan K Varma has said in the introduction of his book The Great Indian Middle Class.
But Sir I don't think that this will serve as a reality check for some shallow girls because owing to the celebrity culture,most girls can't accept being "ordinary" all their lives. Moreover the so called intelligent parents try to help them in every possible way starting from giving them a boring upbringing to sitting beside them with all sorts of comforts as their darlings prepare for their exams has left some girls in such a position that they won't be able to manage their households properly!

Unknown said...

It's absolutely true that life is not all about engaging in rat race,being a first class corporate personnel or the like with no attachment of the person to his private life.Because at one time,his ignorance towards his spouse and children will ultimately face the bitter repercussions(This idea has been exceptionally conveyed by Sudha Murthy in her book:Gently falls the Bakula. And moreover if Ms Patton thinks that being a mere Princetonian makes someone priceless,then she must ponder upon the value of broken family that she's presently living in.(No matter which "Elite" institution she belongs to)
Yours faithfully
Soumallya Chattopadhyay

Sunandini Mukherjee said...

I believe that 'smartness' counts very little to make a happy marriage.I watched a 61 year old woman participating in a dance reality show the other day with her 75 year old husband accompanying her to the stage.The husband stated that his wife is the best dancer he has ever seen and that with her by his side,he has no problem fighting with the old age.The wife on the other hand said that she still dances because her husband encourages her and that they complement each other perfectly-her husband holding her hand always thus helping her fight arthritis,and she staying with him thus helping him fight alzeimers.
I find Ms.Patton's claim that 'the path to find happiness'is to get married to a man from Princeton as early as possible,an insult to girls(girls who are independant-minded)and wonder what her reaction might be if she ever sees happy marital companionship between not so 'smart'people.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Too inexperienced, Rajdeep? Well, okay, if you feel that way. Debashis and Debotosh, thanks for the links. Rashmi, thanks for reading my post closely. More and more, we seem to be thinking alike :)! Navin, yes, a pity, and at her age too, especially because she thinks having gone to Princeton makes her 'smart': what bad advertisement for Princeton! Saikat and Sunandini, quite right, that kind of 'smartness' can actually pose a serious obstacle to having a good marriage. My wife is an uncommonly smart woman in many ways, and much more besides, and that has precious little to do with her school, college and grades. And if I am 'smart' at all where my marriage is concerned, that is only because I can appreciate and be thankful for having such a wife - which is not something I had to go to Princeton for! Ananya, I have the same kind of girls in mind, and I have nightmares thinking of what sort of marriages they will get into, and how long they will take to break up very messily. I am glad you brought Varma's book into the context, and I wish many others would read it as looking into a mirror. Soumallya, glad to have you back. You might write a little more often.

I wish some people I love and respect would also write in, even if they don't agree with everything I say.