Opinion Op-Ed

Daum: Which comes first, husband or career?

Maybe it's spring fever or maybe it's the centrifugal force from all that Sheryl Sandberg-led "leaning in," but it's been a big week for outrage about women and their place.

On Friday, Princeton alumna and parent Susan A. Patton published a letter in the Daily Princetonian urging female students to "find a husband on campus before you graduate," lest they're forced to search for a mate among the teeming masses of the outside world. The letter triggered such a severe case of blogospheric dyspepsia that by Monday, Patton was attempting to clarify her point.

"I sincerely feel that too much focus has been placed on encouraging young women only to achieve professionally," she wrote on the Huffington Post, adding that they'd better cast their lines into the sea of eligible men while they are in college, because "the odds will never be as good again."

Patton's letter prompted a juicy mix of snide humor and feverish indignation. Several bloggers emphasized the fact that Patton had two Princetonian sons, one of whom was still matriculated (and now presumably hiding in the deepest stacks of the Firestone library). "Some Poor Kid's Mom Wrote a Letter to Princeton's Student Newspaper Begging Girls to Date Her Son," went the Gawker headline. Meanwhile, it was pointed out that, as a divorcee, Patton really had no business bullying people into matrimony. (Though, in fairness, Patton suggested that her marriage failed because her husband hadn't gone to Princeton.)

On the chance that Patton is still single and looking for someone who shares her values, she might try her luck with any of the unhitched, old-fashioned gentlemen of the New York Times obituary desk, of which there must be at least a few. In the race to offend women this week, the New York Times was the clear winner. When an obituary for famed spacecraft propulsion scientist Yvonne Brill led with "She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children," the Twitterverse exploded.

Why would someone who'd been awarded a technology and innovation medal by the president, someone who was an actual rocket scientist, get an obit that gave top billing to her cooking and her son's testimony that she was "the world's best mom"?

The Brill obituary, like Patton's letter, could have benefited from a rewrite (it got one; the lead was changed without comment). Though each in its own way underscores one of Sandberg's chief talking points — that women should not underestimate what's at stake as they make their choices — I'm not sure they can be submitted as evidence that women are systematically being steered away from careers and goaded into Stepford wifedom. The obituary, to me, was more an example of clumsy writing than intentional chauvinism (as the editor explained it, the intention was to turn "rocket scientist" into a zinger by leading up to it with a list of domestic achievements — some effects work better in the writer's mind than on the page).

As for Patton's manhunt manifesto, it's shrill and spiky, but it's not entirely wrong. Women — and men — who are certain they want marriage and family someday would do well to keep their eyes open in case their ideal mate comes along before they've hiked in Nepal or bought a condo or done whatever constitutes their pre-marital bucket list. True love doesn't magically appear as you get your act together. Sometimes getting your act together requires finding someone to do it with you.

What is problematic about Patton's message is that it assumes that matters of the heart can be approached as pragmatically as matters of business. If you've met your soul mate by the time you're 22, great. But the truth is, most people don't. Often they think they do, only to realize that souls can be fickle. Early marriage proponents might chalk this up to immaturity and a culture of protracted adolescence, but marrying someone not for who he is but for the life he might facilitate for you down the road is pretty immature, too.

That said, Yvonne Brill seemed comfortable with her strategy. "Good husbands are harder to find than good jobs," she was known to say.

Fair enough. But not everyone's a rocket scientist.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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