I admit I felt a bit anxious before meeting Susan Patton, the infamous “Princeton Mom.”
By the time we shook hands at Princeton’s Whig Hall, Patton had already been all over the news media with her odd, 1950s-era message that young women should spend 75% of their college career focused on finding a husband. From the time they become sophomores, Patton warned, women’s dating options begin a steady decline. “Men regularly marry women who are younger, less intelligent, less educated,” Patton wrote in a much-reviled letter to The Daily Princetonian. “It’s amazing how forgiving men can be about a woman’s lack of erudition, if she is exceptionally pretty. Smart women can’t (shouldn’t) marry men who aren’t at least their intellectual equal. As Princeton women, we have almost priced ourselves out of the market.”
Of course, we’ve heard this sort of warped den-mother wisdom before—many times. Just this week 1970s antifeminist icon Phyllis Schlafly made a bizarre argument that the pay gap actually benefits women because without it there wouldn’t be as many higher-earning men for them to marry.
Willful ignorance that attitudes have changed in the past forty years has been a hallmark of conservative punditry, in part because it gets results. Patton’s letter turned her into a hatebait sensation, garnering her a book deal, numerous television-news appearances and a brand, “The Princeton Mom.” After her book was published, Patton again made the TV-news rounds, appearing on The Today Show, Morning Joe and a several Fox News programs.
I was invited to the panel because I wrote a post challenging Patton’s view that intelligent women are doomed if they don’t lock down a husband in college, pointing out that older, more educated brides are more likely to marry and less likely to divorce than their less ambitious, younger-marrying peers. I also said that reading Patton was “like sitting next to your cranky old aunt at a wedding. You smile wanly and excuse yourself to refresh your drink.”
And now here she was!
“Hello, Sara. Nice to meet you,” she said, holding out her hand. “I really enjoyed your book.”
“And I enjoyed yours!” I said.
This pure lie flew from my mouth before I could stop it. My book, It’s Not You, rails against exactly the kind of single-shaming and fear-mongering that Patton espouses. Like I said, I was nervous.
But unlike me, Patton knows how to handle an awkward situation. She quizzed the other panelist, Huffington Post Books Editor Clare Fallon, and I about our trips to Princeton. Where did we come in from? Did we take the train or the bus? She proudly pointed out her son, a dark-haired young man in a lavender shirt holding her dachshund in this lap. When we started adjusting our microphones, she joked that she’d had men sticking wires up her shirt all week. She was very personable.
During the introductions to the roomful of Princeton women and men (and there were lots of men) moderator Hannah Schoen said Fallon had written a post called The Ten Worst Pieces of Advice From Susan Patton’s ‘Marry Smart’ and I had written one called Why We Can All Relax and Ignore the Princeton Mom. Smiles and chuckles all around—we were all such good friends now!
When the panel began, Patton started off strong, reciting the well-rehearsed
spiel she had delivered on the couches and stools of America’s morning news programs. Like a seasoned politician, she hammered home her talking points and stayed on message, informing the room full of 20-year-olds that they weren’t getting any younger.
But as the panel went on, Patton was forced to confront something that seemed entirely new to her: facts.
Below is a partial transcript of our conversation. Some of the comments have been edited for length—Patton in particular tends to be very repetitive.
In her introductory remarks, Fallon pointed out that the longer people wait to marry, the lower their chance of divorce, so rushing to marry a Princeton classmate might not be the best idea. Later, I noted that on average most Americans didn’t marry until their late 20s, so the field was still wide open for those who didn’t pair off in college.
Patton [to me]: When you say that most women are meeting and marrying by the time they’re 29—is that what you said?
Eckel: The average age of first marriage is 27 for women and 29 for men.
Patton: Okay, that’s most women. But these are not most women. And you can’t measure what most women do. These are truly extraordinary women, and you understand that. I know you do.
Eckel: The more education you have and the more money you make, the more likely you are to marry and the less likely you are to divorce.
Patton changed the subject to my more philosophical comments about how much effort one should put into finding love, expressing her belief that love is something one can and should plan for.
Fallon commented that there is a difference between marrying for the sake of getting married and marrying because you’ve truly found the right fit, and that if women put pressure on themselves to find a husband in college then they might end up stuck in an unhappy marriage.
Fallon: If you want to just get married and have kids, then I think that is something that most people can get behind. If you want to meet the absolute perfect person and not anyone else, then if you don’t meet that person, if you don’t find that connection, then you might prefer to let go of the goal of getting married. And I think the idea that you have to just do it is a destructive thing to tell people.
Patton jumped on this, trying to use Fallon’s age to discredit her.
Patton: There is no such thing as the absolute most perfect person. There’s no such thing. I know that in your 25-year-old world you believe that there is, but there just isn’t. … What you want in a mate and in a partner will change and evolve over time, and what might feel like the most absolute best perfect love of your life at 25 may not feel that way at 30, and what feels like the most perfect love of your life at 30 may not feel so wonderful at 40.
Fallon: But if we change so much throughout our 20s, why should we get married at the beginning of them?
Patton: Because the best you can do is to find yourself a husband or a life partner who shares your love of learning, shares your core values, shares your fundamental vision for a life plan and you grow and evolve through the decades together. It’s easier to do it together than do it alone alone, for most people.
Fallon: But that isn’t born out in the divorce statistics.
Patton: Well, divorce happens 50% of the time…
Fallon: And the risk goes down the longer you wait to marry.
Patton: No, I think that …
The audience laughs. Patton seems a little shaken but informs Fallon that some statistics support her argument and some support Fallon’s. (I’m paraphrasing because Patton is hard to hear over the commotion.)
Fallon: That’s impossible. There are no statistics that go your way.
Patton: Well, cite the study. What study are you referring to? Let’s not be silly.
Eckel: Betsey Stevenson’s. [Laughs and applause] The 20-year divorce rate for college graduates who marry after the age of 25 is only 19%. The divorce rate for college graduates who marry before 25 is 35%, so they’re actually both fairly low. College graduates do quite well. The national divorce rate is now 40%. The divorce rate peaked in 1980, and it’s been going down ever since.
Patton: I thought the divorce rate was 50% across the board.
Eckel: No, that’s a myth.
Patton: Well, it’s frequently written about as 50%.
Eckel: It is, indeed. [more laughter]
If Patton had known what she was talking about, she could have challenged me on the 40% thing. The data I cited was from Tara Parker-Parker Pope’s book For Better and I was specifically referring to economist Betsey Stevenson’s analysis of the 20-year divorce rate among couples who married in the 1980s.
The popular notion that half of all marriages end in divorce comes from the fact that in any given year there are a roughly half the number of divorces as there are marriages. The problem is, the couples who are marrying and divorcing are different people. As Stevenson and economist Justin Wolfers point out in a New York Times op-ed, people who married in the 1970s have about a fifty-fifty chance of making it to their 25th wedding anniversary, but every succeeding generation has enjoyed more stable marriages. If the husband and wife went to college, their chance of splitting up is lower still. In a room full of 20-year-old Princeton students, the 50% statistic was as relevant as an electric typewriter or a rotary phone.
Anyway, Patton didn’t challenge me. The power balance had shifted significantly since I had nervously praised her book less than an hour earlier. It was now clear that, unlike the producers of the nation’s most highly rated news programs, Fallon and I had done a little research. Savannah Guthrie might have frowned when Patton said that high-school girls should consider cosmetic surgery before starting college and that women were responsible for preventing their own sexual assault, but she never challenged her on the facts. Patton was allowed to simply recite her talking points, piss off the peanut gallery and go home.
If Patton thought Fallon and I were tough, that was nothing compared to the Princeton women themselves during the Q&A.
But first, a brief excerpt from Patton’s book regarding the issue of sexual assault: “If you are too drunk to speak, then you may be incapable of saying no or warding off unwanted advances. And then it’s all on you. Please spare me your ‘blaming the victim’ outrage. If you are provocatively dressed, drink too much, and knowingly (or unknowingly) wander into an eager young man’s room, then you have displayed screamingly bad judgment and must bear accountability for what happens next.”
Patton repeated this sentiment in an interview with The Princetonian, which prompted more than 200 Princeton faculty members to sign a letter voicing their strong disagreement.
Student: I would like to address the comment in your book and also your response to it that if you are too drunk or dressed in a certain way you basically shouldn’t say that you’ve been raped. You responded in print, clarifying your argument saying that you that think regretful sex is often misconstrued as rape and often reported. The facts are that sexual assault is the most [underreported] crime and all studies have shown that it is very infrequently false. (She recited some statistics, which I wasn’t able to hear.)
Patton: I don’t know what the statistics are.
Student: Then why do you make these statements?
Patton: When I tried to clarify, and let me say it again, what’s important and what bears repeating is that you have to be responsible for yourself. You’re responsible for your safety, you’re responsible for your actions, you’re responsible for your happiness. You’re solely responsible for yourself. And what I’m telling young women is that if you get to the point where you’re so drunk or so stoned that you can’t take yourself out of harm’s way, you can’t extricate yourself from the situation that you’re uncomfortable with, well then you’ve exercised horribly bad judgment. And I’m telling women, if you don’t know your own limits, if you don’t know how much you can drink before you can’t say no, don’t drink at all. Or don’t allow yourself to be with people that you don’t completely trust.
She goes on for a while and then she gets to her definition of “regrettable sex”:
Patton: Sex can’t be unwanted after the fact. You can’t say it was unwanted after the fact. That is what is problematic. Sometimes when women find themselves in situation where again they have been overserved, they should have walked away, but they just didn’t. It’s easier not to. Then they wake up and say, ‘My God look at where I am. I didn’t mean to.’ It can’t be unwanted after the fact. That’s not assault. It’s bad, but it’s not assault. And I’ve said this many times, it’s the most horrific of all crimes, perhaps with the exception of child abduction. I don’t like the idea of diluting the horror, the true crime of rape with mistake sex. ‘I didn’t mean to. I didn’t want it and I didn’t mean to.’ Those are two very different things and then shouldn’t be convoluted. Again, I am advocating for women to take control of themselves, take responsibility for themselves, don’t put themselves in harms way, ever. It’s only your job to keep yourself safe, always.
I asked Patton if the man who takes an inebriated woman to his room and has sex with her while she isn’t really conscious bears any responsibility.
Patton initially responded that she didn’t know, but after a long back and forth with Fallon eventually conceded that yes, the young man in question is also responsible if he has sex with a woman who is too drunk to consent. It was not “all on” the victim.
Fallon: The idea that what rape really is under these circumstances is women who go out, they get drunk and say ‘Yeah, let’s have sex’ and then afterwards they say ‘Aw, I feel so bad now, I probably shouldn’t have done that’ and then report it as rape–that is not the phenomena that actually happens.
Patton: Sometimes it’s the phenomena that happens.
Fallon: It’s not though.
From the audience, a graduate student named Alyson Neel spoke up:
Neel: You don’t have the statistics nor the facts to back that statement up.
Patton: What I’m telling you, and let me say it again, is women have to be responsible for themselves. They have to act responsibly and have to take control of themselves in all circumstances they are responsible for their own safety, and they are responsible for their own happiness, and to deny that is to disempower to women. It’s disempowering to say to women you’re not responsible for how you comport yourself in the situation you find yourself in. I’m looking to empower women, tell them they are responsible and in control. They set the rules for how they want to be treated. And I’m just telling women remain in control, remain responsible because that’s how you remain safe.
Fallon: There is something I find disempowering, which is spreading the message in society that if you’re a man and you target a women who is extremely drunk, you will be basically exempt from any sort of prosecution [applause]. … And studies show that there are men who—and this is the majority of these kinds of rapes—target women who are drunk and they do so because they know that the women will not be able to find belief in their support system, that women will not be perceived as credible because they were drunk, that people will tell them that you wanted the sex and now you’re taking it back. That is the actual thing women are at risk for, and by spreading this message we are creating a system that is more dangerous for women.
Patton: Don’t you think there need to be two messages? One, tell young men don’t be that guy who preys on women who are overserved. [applause] Two, we want to tell women don’t be that girl who is preyed upon. Don’t allow yourself to be that girl who is preyed upon. I think you need both messages. [applause]
Fallon: You’re skirting the issue. If you tell men just don’t do it, but if we’re creating a system where those women who are victims are unlikely to be received and where the men are not likely to be penalized for their actions, then we are creating a safer system for those men to work in.
And so it went. Patton kept repeating the patently obvious advice that getting blackout drunk is a bad idea, treating the victim’s bad judgment and the perpetrator’s crime as if they existed on the same moral plane. But she did admit that if a woman is forced to have sex against her will then a crime has been committed.
Patton: If you’re the victim of sexual assault then clearly that’s a crime that’s punishable.
Neel: No, but it’s not though. That’s the problem. The problem is that right now as it stands, as someone else pointed out, this is not only a very underreported crime, but it’s also the least legislated against. Princeton and Harvard are the two institutions in this nation that have less strict standards of evidence for perpetrators of this crime. So when you say that there are consequences, there aren’t necessarily and that’s part of the problem. It’s that institutions aren’t handling them correctly.
Patton: But there are consequences to the women.
Neel: Well, clearly. [laughter] You’re not putting any of the responsibility on the perpetrator. That is the problem.
Patton: Well, doesn’t the law? You’re actually saying the law does not—
Neel: As it stands right now at Princeton–and one in six women are sexually assaulted on this campus–if you are assaulted you will go through a proceeding, but this is one of two institutions, Harvard is the other one, where you have to go through a stricter standard of evidence as a victim to be able to receive justice.
Patton: I don’t mean Princeton law. Isn’t there a town law or state law that governs this?
Neel continues to educate Patton about what happens when a young woman is sexually assaulted on campus until finally Patton announces that “this is part of a larger discussion” and the moderator ends the talk. [Neel, a 2015 Masters in Public Affairs Candidate, later noted that she misspoke here. "The real problem isn't the lack of legislation," she said, noting the recent passage of the Campus SaVE Act. "It's that the legislation does not always result in perpetrators and universities/colleges being held accountable."]
I’ll give Susan Patton this: she’s a tough cookie. She was outnumbered on the panel and, with the possible exception of her son and her dog, was in a room that was almost entirely against her. Her “two-pronged” approach statement got her applause, and some students approached her to chat after the talk was over, but no one spoke out in her defense. Nevertheless, Patton was energetic and gregarious when we stepped down from the platform. We shook hands before we left, and she told me she enjoyed talking to me even if she didn’t always agree with me.
I honestly don’t have a problem with Patton herself. I think she sincerely believes her advice is beneficial to women. And like the kooky aunt at the wedding, she has the right to say what she likes.
My problem is with a culture that gives a megaphone to a woman with nothing to offer but retrograde opinions and no facts to support them. My problem is with national newspapersthat treat the statement “men won’t buy the cow if the milk is free” as an argument worthy of its op-ed page. My problem is with television news producers who can’t be bothered to do a quick Google search before inviting an anti-feminist boogie-woman on the air.
My blog post about Patton was entirely unoriginal, as it merely repeated information that had been published in The New York Times, The Atlantic.com, Salon, Forbes.com and Slate. The women in the audience at Princeton were fact-checking the event on their laptops in real time—why couldn’t anyone at NBC/Universal do the same?
“I would like everybody to email us and we’ll have [Patton] back,” said Morning Joe’s Mika Brzezinski said after their very friendly MSNBC chat. “I want to know exactly what you think. You can keep the vitriol to the side, but really bring some good arguments to the table and we’ll take this on in a bigger segment.”
That’s right: you bring some good arguments to the table. You do the work. Because clearly no one employed by a cable or network news conglomerate will.