I actually get where Princeton Mom is coming from. I mean, I do teach a class called, “class, status and power” and Princeton Mom may think she’s talking about marriage but I know she’s really talking about class, status, and power.
Princeton Mom is Susan Patton. A few months back she wrote a piece encouraging well-heeled young women in college to waste less time on building a career and more time using their campus days to screen for an appropriate husband.
This week, Princeton Mom is back in Wall Street Journal (which, really, could just bill itself “the news for Princeton Moms and their young” without changing their editorial position one iota). Patton wants young women to “think about” the reality of their biological clocks:
Think about it: If you spend the first 10 years out of college focused entirely on building your career, when you finally get around to looking for a husband you’ll be in your 30s, competing with women in their 20s. That’s not a competition in which you’re likely to fare well. If you want to have children, your biological clock will be ticking loud enough to ward off any potential suitors. Don’t let it get to that point.
It’s one of those great pop culture examples of nouns that have gone unpacked. I try to cull these for sociology students.
“Princeton” may be a hint, but I suspect Patton isn’t talking to all “young ladies” even if that is the group to whom she addresses her advice. She is talking about a very specific subset of elite, young, mostly white women at a handful of elite universities that have always been known as much for being a finishing school for the wealthy as they have been institutions of higher learning.
For those women, there is an argument to be made that they may find it harder to meet, “a life partner who shares your intellectual curiosity and potential for success is difficult” once they leave college. An argument. And Patton is certainly making it.
About 57 percent of the nation’s 21 or so million college students are women. Women at colleges like Princeton are in the minority of the minority. For the rest of the ladies in college, Princeton Mom’s advice gets complicated.
The most educated women have long been the most likely to be single. But, maybe Patton is sensing the narrowing of that trend. It is true that educational attainment is increasingly less likely to be an indicator of spinsterhood. That could have something to do with the fact that marriages now benefit when a wife (or wives) can contribute to family income. This point has come up recently on twitter:
If we assume Patton is talking to the wealthy ladies at elite universities, you might see how her advice might not work so well for women in other income percentiles.
Poor women contribute a larger share of their income to their households but two working poor folks have a hard time moving the dial on their income ranking. Middle class households tend to need a woman’s contributions to be in the middle class. And well-heeled women are in line with the overall trend of female contributions to households but I’d argue that their income is less necessary to maintaining a family’s status at the top of the hierarchy. So, for them, Patton wants greater choice that maximizes mate selection. It’s 1950s creepy unless you consider that a woman’s status is still very much associated with that of her mate’s, particularly as you move up the status hierarchy.
And maybe in the middle, there some sense that you need a mate of comparable earning potential and status just to maintain your position in the middle.
For working class women, the calculus of marriage/mating in college while they are working to earn the credential that might lift them out of working class status is more tricky. Parental status and marital status is actually negatively associated with college completion for working class and poor women. The trade-off becomes, do they follow Princeton Mom’s advice or do they minimize risk factors to get that paper?
For black women (again, unpack those nouns!) across almost all class categories this gets messy. For example, black women at HBCUs (the black status equivalent of Princeton’s social finishing school function) do not necessarily have the same optimal choice situation that Patton assumes is true of college. Only ten percent of black men enrolled in college are enrolled at an HBCU, creating scenarios like the one at Clark Atlanta University where almost three quarters of the students are women.
But there are black women at places like Princeton. What of them? In their book on the social and institutional processes that constrain minority access to elite universities, Douglass Massey at al point out that black women outnumber black men in the Ivy League too, and:
If they have any hope of a romantic partnership with a member of the opposite sex , roughly half of all black women will have to date someone non-black or someone who is much less education (given polygamy is illegal).
I could point out work on colorism, interracial dating, and assortative mating patterns that make that less likely for black women than it is for black men (all other things being equal) but why beat a dead horse? The fact is, Princeton Mom is assuming some conditions that are true for only some of the “young ladies” at Princeton.
But, I don’t want to be a bummer on Valentine’s day. Love is a wonderful thing. But marriage is not a synonym for love. It is a very specific legal and social construct that can happen with love but love is neither necessary nor sufficient for marriage.
But let me make sure I note that this need not be a bummer. Marriage can be great (especially for men) but it is not the end all, be all for a meaningful life. And, getting an education before you start “hunting” a husband can be a rational choice if the stressors of marriage might further exacerbate the risk factors of class, race, and/or gender for women pursing a credential.
And because I refuse to be one of those piling on in the “woe is black women” media memes let me be clear. Data suggest that the income/education trends in marriage (folks want more of both before they marry) seems to explain a significant part of black women marriage rates. It can take us a little longer (for all the reasons you should know by now if you read this blog) to get both income and education so black women do tend to marry later in life. And reality bears out the wisdom of what black mothers like mine told me forever: our incomes are a greater share of our families’ incomes (the number by which our shared class position rises and falls). But the stats aren’t nearly as dire as often described:
So, what’s my point? Well, marriage isn’t the end all, be all. But it’s nice enough and if folks want it, income inequality and status competition means that they seem to want it after they have some paper and, well, A Paper. Women are responding by focusing on getting A Paper to make some paper and unless you are born to family wealth, that’s not such an irrational position.