Princeton Mom Susan Patton Is No Genius When It Comes to Relationships

She may have an Ivy League degree, but she gets an F in the language of love.

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By now, “Princeton Mom” Susan Patton’s unexpected Valentine’s Day rant in the Wall Street Journal urging college women to hurry up and find a husband on campus before it’s too late has been thoroughly debunked. Let’s set aside that Patton makes it sound like these smart guys somehow magically disappear upon graduation, as rare a sighting as the Loch Ness Monster. “Patton still insists we catch a Princeton man as if he is a Pokémon,” wrote Lea Trusty in The Daily Princetonian—the very paper where Patton’s 2013 letter to the editor catapulted her to international fame. Slate’s Katy Waldman wondered whether Patton was more insulting to men or women (the result was a tie).

Rather than tackling every mistaken assumption in her forthcoming book Marry Smart: Advice for Finding THE ONE (March 11, Gallery Books), because there are so many from which to choose—the raving cabal of feminists intent on keeping all heterosexual women forever single in their march up the corporate ladder, for men “there is very little that trumps free sex with a woman who is easier to make than a peanut butter sandwich,” and her advice to high-school students to get bodywork done before heading off to college (all the better to catch a man by getting rid of “a haunting physical flaw”)—I want to look at one overwhelming flaw in Patton’s logic: her definition of “smart,” and her belief that her definition is the only one. She’s been called out for being elitist before, but it bears repeating: The main reason Patton wants women to look for husbands in college is because she equates Ivy League with intelligence and success. Never mind that women now surpass men in higher education or that, according to Pew Research, more women are now marrying less educated spouses.

“If you associate too closely with a man who is significantly below your intellectual level, you will eventually get stupid juice all over you,” writes Patton in Marry Smart, as if stupidity were a contagious disease. Also, your friends and family will judge you by the man you marry, and “you will come to define yourself by your spouse.” So ladies, proffer those ring fingers only for the white collar. “That’s not to say you can’t be happy with the good-hearted plumber,” she writes, “but if your education and ambition can propel you to stratospheric success, it may not be easy to accept your status as the plumber’s wife. And it may be difficult for you to be gracious about others introducing you as Mrs. Joe the Plumber.”

Patton privileges only book smarts, with barely a mention of how those book smarts lead to a good relationship—but there are plenty of women who aren’t counting on their husband to be the brains of the family. Whereas Patton writes in her op-ed, “When the conversation turns to Jean Cocteau or Henrik Ibsen, the Bayeux Tapestry or Noam Chomsky, you won’t find that glazed look that comes over his face at all appealing,” I’m pretty sure that most modern women don’t expect their dates to know every detail they do, and vice versa. I don’t buy that women (or men, for that matter) put so much stock in which diploma does (or doesn’t) hang on a partner’s wall. Instead, we care about the way they treat us, and others.

Now back to that diploma: Patton pays lip service to the idea that men who didn’t go to elite schools maybe, just maybe, are suitable mates if you really can’t find someone better, but it’s hard to believe she’d want you to settle for anything less. As Princeton grad Walter Kirn pointed out, a Princeton degree won’t inoculate you from, say, killing your wife and daughters. What about the Yale fraternity that was suspended in 2011 for its sexist chants?

As Jessie Ren Marshall recently wrote in the New York Times, when it comes to love, emotion can trump spelling errors: “I couldn’t ignore how his words made me feel.” Her new beau had been sending her texts and postcards riddled with mistakes, but full of love. Rarely does Patton’s book address the emotional effect a man has on you. Instead, she urges women to look at a man’s credentials because “they are a reasonably good predictor of what you can expect in a husband, school, or job.” Except that I don’t want to treat looking for a lifelong partner the way I would a job search, nor would I want someone evaluating me like a human-resources consultant (Patton’s job).

While some women contend that “guys can’t handle when a woman knows more than they do, about anything,” as Amelia McDonell-Parry once wrote at The Frisky, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. What matters is more how you convey what you know. If someone is constantly trying to one-up you by bombarding you with proof of how smart they are (perhaps by mentioning their elite alma mater), they’re going to come across as obnoxious. It’s one thing to blaze through a game of Jeopardy! at home, but another to sound like a talking encyclopedia at a party.

My boyfriend regularly mixes up “to” and “too” when he texts, but I’ve never pointed it out to him. Why? Because it’s just not important to our relationship. He’s good at the things that matter, like finding us places to live, budgeting, cooking, and making me laugh and feel loved everyday. Besides, he regularly holds me in awe with his storehouse of information on everything from science to art, not to mention more mundane things like how to fix our printer. You can’t just wave an Ivy League degree and make money, jobs or, for that matter, love, appear. Patton sounds more interested in making sure women are afforded the safety of marriage, as illusory as it may be (she, after all, was recently divorced, but doesn’t mind that her marriage was doomed because it got her Princeton-bound sons, who in turn helped reunite her with Princeton), than finding a match that truly fits.

My dad didn’t graduate college until he was 61, but he’s one of the smartest people I know. And even though my parents split up when I was little, he spent time with me, teaching me to play chess and go coin collecting. Was he a perfect dad? No, but that wasn’t because of his lack of a degree. But in Patton’s world, someone like him should never have had any business dating college-educated women. I wonder if she would’ve rejected, say, college dropout Steve Jobs, or any of his billionaire non-matriculated peers, or anyone daring enough to break away from the established signifiers of intelligence to try to build something new and different. After all, she advises, based on her experience getting more praise and recognition for working at Citibank than a small company: “Instead of a big job in a small start-up, you are better off opting for a smaller job in a much bigger, more recognizable company.” Personally, I’d rather be with someone willing to put his passion front and center.

Patton wants women to “smarten up,” but how many of us aspire to marrying someone who we openly admit isn’t the love of our lives, just to sate our biological clock, as Patton did? Being “smart” doesn’t guarantee success in life, at work, as a partner, or as a parent. It doesn’t mean you’ll be a good partner or a parent. And a good conversation is not about showing off your knowledge—it’s about engaging with people, connecting. It’s hard to know whether she’s correct in her assertion that her ex-husband’s lack of “comparable academic credentials” helped or hurt her marriage. Maybe it was her judgmental attitude? After all, she told The Cut, “I wish I married someone who went to Princeton.” Instead, her ex went to a school with “almost no name recognition.” At 38, I really don’t care where the people I associate with, intimately or not, went to college, and I certainly hope in my 50s I’m not hung up on that lone factor.

There’s a reason the phrase “good on paper” exists. For Patton, it’s a man’s papers and pedigree that are seemingly more important than his personality. Which, call me crazy, doesn’t sound very smart to me.

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