Marry Young? A Jewish Mother's Take on the 'Find a Husband' Letter

Does the open letter urging young women at Princeton to find a husband on campus turn the clock back or speak an unwelcome truth?

I would probably be divorced by now if I had listened to the leaders and peers of my religious community and gotten married at 22.

Even if I had waited until 25 – when most of my friends were already wed – I probably would have ended up living in Efrat in the West Bank (which back then I’d have called Judea and Samaria, if I bothered to distinguish it as separate from Israel at all).

I was a different person in my twenties: I was a right-wing, religious Zionist who moved to Israel right after college, planning to live there for the rest of my life.

But then something strange happened: I changed. I moved back to New York, almost married my boyfriend at 30, but ended up splitting up with him and hopping a plane to California. It took me another nine years to leave religion and become a liberal, left-wing humanist – and it was only after my identity was forged, at age 39, that I met my future husband, a secular Tel Avivian.

Now, I admit my story is somewhat extreme: Average people don’t just up and change the course of the life they have been inducted into; average people don’t crisscross the globe, setting up jobs and friends and lives, then leave, like I did.

But still, most people don’t really know themselves at 22.  

I bring this up because one Jewish mother has caused a hullaballoo in the blogosphere by counseling women at Princeton to marry young.

“Here’s what nobody is telling you: Find a husband on campus before you graduate,” Susan A. Patton, a mother of two sons attending Princeton, and herself a Princeton graduate (1977), wrote in an an open letter to The Daily Princetonian.

Patton, who clarified that she is Jewish (not a WASP or a stay-at-home mom as some of the hundreds of commenters accused her of being), is a human resources consultant. She attributed her divorce, after 27 years of marriage, to the fact that she was with someone who didn’t have the same academic background as her and the resentment it generated. 

“You will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of you,” she wrote. “Of course, once you graduate, you will meet men who are your intellectual equal — just not that many of them. And, you could choose to marry a man who has other things to recommend him besides a soaring intellect. But ultimately, it will frustrate you to be with a man who just isn’t as smart as you.”

Like many treatises on dating, marriage and children, such as The Washington Post’sTime to Stop Hooking Up” against the so-called rampant sexuality on college campus, and The Atlantic’s “Why Women Can’t Have It All” on working mothers, Patton’s article hit a nerve (and crashed the newspaper’s website) because no one has quite figured out how to live in a world where women can choose whom to marry – and when.

Of course, given my own history, it should come as no surprise that I think it’s not a stellar idea to marry at 22. After college, you need to discover what you want to do with your life, where you want to live, what type of person you want to be with, what type of person wants to be with you. You need time to learn, to discover, to try, to fail, to make mistakes – so you can learn how to do what's right, or what's right for you.  

That’s why I’m feeling wary of yet another old wives' tale, cautioning young women to grab a husband lest they end up worthless spinsters. Is this what feminists fought for: the right to go to college – an Ivy, no less! – only to be told once again that we should focus on our MRS. degree? Besides, Patton’s wrong about men not liking smart women. Men love smart women – just not bossy, critical and "I always have to prove I’m right" women.

But…believe it or not, I do have a “but,” as in, but Patton is, in some ways, right. The dating pool does shrink for women as they get older. The dating pool for men is limitless as they age because they can always date younger, prettier and even dumber women.

Patton speaks the ugly truth. Despite all the advances women have enjoyed – of being able to go to college, delay marriage and childbirth, achieve remarkable successes in their careers, some facts cannot be changed: That time is limited. That we all grow older. That men prefer younger women. That biological clocks are ticking and then stop. That life isn’t always fair -- even when there’s equality.

If I had known all this when I was younger, I would have lived my life differently. One of the things I did know then was this: Every rabbi, teacher, parent, relative and friend warned me I was getting too old. (To them, 30 is ancient). I was duly warned and still I didn’t get married until I was 40.

At our wedding we had a funny wedding cake topper – it was called “Runaway Groom." I joked at the time that if it was really supposed to reflect reality, there would have been female figurines clutching at the sides of the cake, with the bridal figure (me) stepping on their fingers to snatch the groom away from their desperate hands. In other words, dating in my late 30s wasn’t easy. The competition was fierce. At times I wished I were younger so other single women could be purely happy for me, instead of feeling bad for themselves.

That’s why if I had to advise my "imaginary daughters," as Patton did, I would tell them that there’s a middle-ground between 22 and 40, between being a stay-at-home mom and an unmarried career woman. Feminists gave us the right to choose – but that option doesn’t last forever.

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