Women, Do What Is Right for You – If You Want

“I’ve yet to be on a campus where most women weren’t worrying about some aspect of combining marriage, children, and a career. I’ve yet to find one where many men were worrying about the same thing.” – Gloria Steinem


UCLA - Photo by Crystal B. Shepeard
UCLA – Photo by Crystal B. Shepeard

I still remember when I received my college acceptance letter to UCLA. I was 17 and living in Ft. Carson, Colorado. It was a big envelope, which I guessed would be a good thing.  I mean, they wouldn’t send you a big envelope to tell me ‘no’, would they? I tore it open and had barely read the words of acceptance before I started jumping up and down screaming at the top of my lungs.  My sister and brother, who were only 8 and 6 at the time, started jumping up and down, too. They had no idea what UCLA was, but it was fun to jump up and down with their big sister.  My mom smiled and congratulated me with tears in her eyes. I know now those tears were part pride…and part fear of not being able to pay for the college of my dreams. I applied to several and this was the first acceptance letter. I had decided it didn’t matter about the others because UCLA had two things I wanted: Los Angeles and access to my dream of being an actress.

My mother, however, had her own dreams. During the college search, she made sure I applied to Princeton University. I resisted, but acquiesced. A few weeks before I received my acceptance letter from UCLA I had an admissions interview with a Princeton alumnus. That happens with Ivy League colleges – you’re vetted to make sure you’re the right fit. I wore a red sweater dress with boots. Red was power. I thought Princeton would like a powerful woman.

At one point in the interview, he asked why I wanted to go to Princeton. I had trouble with that question. I had done a great deal of research about what the different schools I was applying to offered. I always knew I wanted to be an actress (still working on that), but I didn’t want to get a degree in theater. I didn’t necessarily want to have something to fall back on in case the acting thing didn’t work out (after all, how could it NOT work out?), but I did want to pursue something that made me a well rounded person. Based on my assessment, Princeton wouldn’t do that. As I read the course listings, which seemed heavy on literature studies and European culture, I thought the only thing I would be able to do at Princeton was to learn how to be a good wife. Even at 17, I knew that wasn’t my thing.

An article in Princeton’s University newspaper, the Daily Princetonian, was written recently by alumni Susan Patton. Susan went to Princeton in the mid-seventies, one of only 200 women who were breaking down barriers on the then male-dominated Ivy League campuses. In her opinion piece, published March 29, 2013, Susan advised the women whose trail she helped blaze this:

“For most of you, the cornerstone of your future and happiness will be inextricably linked to the man you marry, and you will never again have this concentration of men who are worthy of you.

Here’s what nobody is telling you: Find a husband on campus before you graduate.”

My instincts were right…more than twenty years before she wrote this.

Needless to say, the Interwebs didn’t take her article lightly. Facing criticism, Susan doubled down on her original thought.

“Men regularly marry women who are younger, less intelligent, less educated. 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. Simply put, there is a very limited population of men who are as smart or smarter than we are. And I say again — you will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of you.

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.”

She was speaking to the freshman class, by the way. She really wanted to make sure these young women made the most of their four years to find their “equal.” She did note that men didn’t have to worry about this – there would always be women who were just as smart as them to choose from…though they probably wouldn’t…because, as she kept emphasizing, smart women aren’t a desirable commodity among men.

Much of the criticism of Susan’s message focused on telling women to wait to get married. Many studies are supportive of this advice, including a recent one focusing on the economic benefits of delaying marriage. Of course, there was also support for her ideas…mainly from older men (who are probably married to women not as smart as they are). What was missing from the criticism (and the support) was a key element to determining your future: Figure out who you are, what you want and then, and only then, do what is right for you. P.S.: The items on your “what I want list” will change several times throughout your life.

While my fellow high school girls were trying to figure out how they were going to plan their wedding and graduate from high school (though some were also worried about going to college while taking care of their husbands and their kids. Seriously, they were fretting about that in class, especially the ones that already had kids.), I was trying to figure out how to afford living on my own. That was a big goal of mine. I wanted to have my own place. I wasn’t sure if I would like it, but I wanted to try. If I didn’t, I could always get a roommate. One thing I never thought about was getting a husband. I would, however, consider living with a guy and perhaps getting a dog. Kids were definitely out of the question. Besides, I was going to be so busy trying to juggle college and doing commercials (that’s how I was going to pay for my own apartment!).

So when Mr. Princeton Alumnus guy asked me why I wanted to go to Princeton, I couldn’t be honest with him…because the truth was, I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to be just a smart girl with an Ivy League education and a husband who I met during some social on campus. I wanted to be an actress and a writer and an LA woman. I wanted my own apartment.

Instead I went on about how prestigious Princeton was and how it would be a phenomenal opportunity and a dream to experience all that Princeton had to offer. I just didn’t specify it wasn’t my dream.

I applied to five different universities and colleges. I received four large envelopes. Princeton sent me a small one. I was relieved.

Several years later, I would work with another Princeton alumnus and I shared my brush with Ivy League fame. He informed me that if I got to the point of an admission interview – I was basically in – so if I didn’t get the big envelope, I somehow blew the interview. In other news, I started telling people I did get accepted to Princeton, but wanted to be in LA.

Maybe I was a little cocky (I was 17, after all). Maybe I did give a bad interview. Maybe he didn’t like the red dress. Or maybe he saw through my attempted enthusiasm and put in the comments on my assessment that I wasn’t the right fit for Princeton.

Perhaps he wrote, “She needs to do what’s right for her. Go west, young woman!”

I did. And I do have my own apartment…that I share with the child I definitely wanted to have. Still waiting on that commercial call back.


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