Susan Patton may be the only person in the history of the world to get a book deal by being a crank who writes nutty letters to the editor. Back in March, Patton wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Princetonian—both her sons went to Princeton—warning college women that they best find a husband before graduating college or, well, she didn’t exactly say they’d be dried-up old hags who would only have a handful of uneducated boors left to marry, but that was the general gist of it. (Her opinion of people who didn’t go to college, like her seeming opinions on most things, is very low and seems to be sourced solely from stereotypes instead of actually engaging with people, or else she would know that plenty of people who didn’t go to college are very bright and plenty of people who did are nonetheless dull.) The letter went viral, feeding off widespread cultural anxieties that young, well-educated women are shirking their duty to put men and marriage before their own ambitions, and so now she’s back with a book and an editorial in the Wall Street Journal.
The editorial covers the same ground that her original letter to the editor did: instructing college women to spend less time on their studies and fluffing their resumes and more time on husband-hunting. “You should be spending far more time planning for your husband than for your career—and you should start doing so much sooner than you think,” she writes, though notably she doesn’t really tell you what “planning for your husband” looks like. Maybe she gets around to that in her book, or maybe—and frankly, more likely—it’s because she doesn’t really have a good answer for that.
The closest she comes is to tell young women to “stop wasting time dating men who aren’t good for you: bad boys, crazy guys and married men,” demonstrating fairly conclusively that she pretty much has no idea what young women are up to these days, not that ignorance of women’s lives has ever stopped a sexist from feeling their opinion on any matter would be welcomed. Where is she getting this weird idea that your average college girl spends her time sleeping with married men? Or even “bad boys” or “crazy guys.” In reality, the college girls she’s yelling at are sleeping with basically the same men she wants them to marry. And they will eventually marry them—contrary to Patton’s dark predictions that college-educated women are practically un-marriageable, college-educated women are more not less likely to get married than their peers without bachelor’s degrees. It’s interesting how the “good guy” that every woman should be clamoring to marry suddenly turns into the “bad boy” that a woman is wasting time on if she dates him without any intention to marry any time soon.
But really, all this talk about wasting time on bad boys is merely to distract from the fact that Patton’s piece, like pretty much every conservative lecture to women to marry often and marry young, is based on a false premise: that women are single because they’re making an active choice to avoid committing to a relationship. When they snootily lecture low-income women and single mothers about the value of marriage, it’s particularly obnoxious because there’s no reason to believe that these women would reject being married if they had a chance to get married to a man they loved.
With college women, the ground is slightly sturdier—it’s true that most women in college are not eager to get a ring on it as soon as possible—but giving it a moment’s thought should make the flaw in her reasoning more obvious. The problem here is that she assumes there’s some course of action college women could be taking that would net them a husband. Say a young woman decides to take Patton’s advice, and puts down those schoolbooks to start going out looking for a husband. What would that look like? What steps would she take? Going out to parties and meeting people? Going to classes where the college men are? Going out on dates? I guarantee that’s exactly what young women are already doing. There’s no reason to think that scaling back on the schoolwork will suddenly mean that the boys that you’re dating now start looking more like husbands. Nor would scaling back on schoolwork mean that you do a better job sussing out which of the guys around you are eager to get married. All she does is tell women to have less sex, which is the traditional conservative formula to turn errant young men into devoted husbands. (The assumption is that all men are misogynists who only put up with women in order to obtain sex, so you have to extract a higher “price”—having to spend, ick, time with you—from men in exchange for the sex. Why women should want people who hate them to marry them is never really explained.) But spending less time on sex would free you up to study more, so that doesn’t make a lot of sense.
In the real world, most people—including college kids—tend to stick by someone if they fall in love and, if the relationship works out, they will eventually marry. Sure, there’s a lot of couples who met in college and who don’t marry for another decade, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t together and devoted the whole time. The reason women tend to marry someone they meet after college is not because they were too snooty to marry a classmate, but because the relationships they had while younger didn’t work out and the ones they created later did. Which is they way it should be—people are better off in healthy marriages than unhealthy ones.
I have my suspicions about why the “go get married, ladies!” lectures always ignore this reality. That’s because these articles aren’t really meant as sincere advice for single women. These articles are about perpetuating a nasty stereotype, trying to convince people that giving women access to financial independence and higher education has “ruined” them. The argument embedded in a piece like Patton’s is that sexual liberation and women’s equality are failed experiments because women are too silly and stupid to use their rights responsibly. The audience for a piece like this is not college women, who are unlikely to be reading the Journal. It’s a majority male, largely conservative audience that wants to hear that women’s precious freedoms need to be clipped for our own good. It’s a classic concern troll, and should be understood as nothing more than that. And if a mean-spirited relative gives you Patton’s book under the phony guise of “concern” about how you’re ruining your life by living so freely, ladies, I have some serious advice for you: Don’t feel bad about promptly tossing it in the trash. You have better things to do with your time, like studying.