By EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH — In the Wall Street Journal, April 4, 2013. There, the article is titled FIND A MAN TODAY, GRADUATE TOMORROW.
In 2008, when I was a college junior, I went home to New Jersey one weekend to visit my family—and almost immediately regretted it. My mother seemed more interested in my romantic life than my academic life: “Have you found a boyfriend yet?”
I rolled my eyes and said no. With a healthy dose of young-adult arrogance, I explained that I was too busy studying, working on the college review, and helping out at my sorority. No time for men. My mother nodded, acknowledging that there was a lot going on.
Then she said calmly but forcefully: “You’re in college. You’re at Dartmouth. There will never be a better time to meet someone. I’m sure there are many interesting boys around. If you don’t find one before you graduate, you might not find one at all—so start looking.”
Best of the Web Today columnist James Taranto on why Princeton alumna Susan Patton was right to suggest that smart women should try to seek out husbands in college.
Fast forward to today. A woman named Susan Patton is being pilloried online and elsewhere for giving young women the same advice that my mother gave to me. Late last week, she wrote a letter to the Daily Princetonian newspaper advising the school’s female students: “You will never again have this concentration of men who are worthy of you. . . . Find a husband on campus before you graduate.”
Feminist attacks on Ms. Patton began immediately—the paper’s website was swamped with complaints, the Twitter crowd was livid, and writers lit into her at Slate, New York magazine and beyond.
To call Ms. Patton anti-feminist is misguided at best. She was the first woman in her family to attend college. In fact, she was in one of the first classes of women to graduate from Princeton after the school went coed in 1969, and she had to fight her parents to go. Her parents, who were Holocaust survivors, thought a woman’s place was in the home. Ms. Patton has spent the years since her 1977 graduation carving out a successful career in corporate America.
My mother, too, has blazed her own trails as a woman. Born in Iran to a middle-class family, she worked so hard in high school that she was one of only a handful of women admitted to the country’s most prestigious engineering university. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which drastically changed Iranian life, especially for women, she packed her bags and headed west—first to the United States, then to Canada, where one of her early jobs was flipping burgers.
She eventually started working as a chemical engineer and has, like Ms. Patton, enjoyed a successful career. My mom benefited enormously from the freedom and opportunities that feminism gave her—opportunities she would have been denied in Iran.
So have I. For my entire life, my parents have pushed me to work hard and be independent, to be capable of supporting myself emotionally and financially.
That is precisely why my mother’s advice five years ago stopped me in my tracks. If she, a strong, career-oriented feminist—who, with my dad, sacrificed a great deal for me to go to college—was telling me to pay more attention to my romantic life, then what did she know that I didn’t?
A lot. She knew what few, if any, feminists would tell young women today: There is far more to happiness than career success.
Before Susan Patton wrote the letter that went viral, she had attended a Princeton conference about women and leadership. In one of the conference sessions, Ms. Patton and her best friend since freshman year of college met with undergraduate women ostensibly to talk about their careers. As she explained in the letter, though, the undergrads were less interested in discussing jobs than relationships and other personal matters.
Ms. Patton wrote that one of the young women asked how she and her friend had sustained a friendship for 40 years: “You asked if we were ever jealous of each other. You asked about the value of our friendship, about our husbands and children. Clearly, you don’t want any more career advice. . . . You know that there are other things that you need that nobody is addressing. A lifelong friend is one of them. Finding the right man to marry is another.”
In a boardroom somewhere, Sheryl “Lean In” Sandberg’s heart is sinking.
Career success and relationships are both undoubtedly important to women’s happiness, but many young and ambitious women value their personal lives more than their career aspirations. And that feeling intensifies over time.
In a 2009 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, David Lubinski and his team at Vanderbilt found that in a sample of academically gifted young adults, women became less career-oriented than men over time. As they approached middle age, women also placed more value than men on spending time with family, community and friends. These differences became more pronounced with parenthood.
My mother’s advice—Susan Patton’s advice—may not be right for every woman, but it was right for me. In the fall of my senior year, I started dating a brilliant man and we’re still together. If I were unattached today, I’m not sure what I would do. The post-college dating scene can be rough: Getting to know someone often means shouting across a noisy bar or scrolling through Internet dating profiles. Finding a partner in college is easier.
Mom was right.
Ms. Smith is an associate editor of The New Criterion and editor of the blog Acculturated.