I would like to sincerely thank you for coming to campus on Thursday, April 18, 2013 to give a lecture titled, “Advice from a Princeton Mother.” Your lecture helped me a great deal. It helped me to understand exactly what is so dangerous about anti-feminist, slut-shaming women like you, and why the backlash you received after your now infamous letter to the editor in the Daily Princetonian was not only deserved, but important to the future of American women.
I attended your lecture because, like many other young women on campus, I was offended and confused by your advice to the daughters you never had. While your letter was obviously inflammatory in how it excluded homosexual women and predicated a woman’s happiness on her husband, the underlying message was not completely out of the ordinary: when choosing someone to spend your life with, it is probably not a bad idea to find someone with whom you share similar values regarding education. I almost pitied you when the president of the Whig-Clio society introduced you to a room full of palpably tense young feminists. I wondered if maybe you were just a silly, harmless woman who chose to dole out some age-old motherly advice in a poorly written, poorly thought-out manner. But then you opened your mouth, and I began to understand how poisonous you really are.
You began by defending yourself and your letter in the Prince. You said that you had meant the letter for a very specific audience: straight women who want to get married and have a “traditional” family. I could understand this, even though your original letter made no mention of such parameters and that you seem to define “traditional” in a very narrow and hetero-normative way. Then, you launched into an anecdote that is clearly very close to your heart. After the lecture led by Shirley Tilghman and Anne Marie Slaughter regarding women in leadership, you and other successful, female alumni were asked to lead breakout sessions where current Princeton students could discuss in small groups ideas brought up in the lecture. During this conversation, after deciding unilaterally that “young women don’t need any more career advice,” you asked the young women in attendance to raise their hands if one day, they would like to get married and have children. You claim that several young women hesitated and looked around before raising their hands. Instead of chalking this hesitation up to being asked a personal question during a conversation about women in leadership, you decided that this anecdotal evidence about your conversation with no more than ten female Princeton students is all the proof you need that young women are being bullied and shamed for saying that one day, they want a family.
After telling me that I, as a woman attending Princeton, am afraid to admit that I want a husband and children one day (I am not) because of the stigma attached to women who want a family as well as a career (which I have never encountered), you began to belittle the “women’s movement.” First, I’d like to point out how antiquated this phrase is, almost as antiquated as your understanding of feminism. The “women’s movement” was what feminism was called when you attended Princeton in the 1970’s. It was an important, powerful movement that made it possible for women like you to attend a university like Princeton and enjoy as successful a career as yours. However, this movement, like many social movements, had its flaws. I agreed with you to an extent when you said that the “women’s movement” bullied women who truly wanted to stay home and raise their children and did not feel oppressed in doing so. Certain factions of this enormous and diverse cultural movement did espouse this type of misguided, man-hating ideology, but it was certainly not the entire women’s movement that did so. Like in many other movements, ideologies, or even religions, however, the most radical members get the most media attention and therefore stick in the minds of the public as symbols of the movement as a whole. In its abrasive, man-hating rhetoric, this strain of early feminism alienated women and men alike and turned feminist into a title that many women today still shirk.
However, the “women’s movement,” also known as second wave feminism, is over. It ended in the 1980’s. In 2013, we are entering what many are calling fourth wave feminism. For you to attack feminist values based on the 1970’s adage “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” which you so often quoted during your lecture, would be like me attacking the current tax code by shouting “no taxation without representation.” You’re attacking a concept of feminism that is vastly outdated and, in the process of doing so, discounting all of the progress that feminism has made over the last thirty plus years.
My feminism, as a young woman of the new millennium, is all about choice. I do not believe women should be punished for choosing to stay home with their children, if that is what they truly want. Just as strongly, I believe that a woman who chooses to prioritize her career over her personal life should have every professional opportunity that a man has. Both these women, and every woman in between, has the right to her own opinions on the matter of work-life balance, as long as that opinion does not hinder the interests of others. Your misunderstanding of what feminism means today is not only backwards, it is detrimental to the interests of young women like me who hope that one day, no one—no matter what gender—will be afraid to call themself a feminist. You continually pointed to a stigma on campus about women admitting that one day they would like to have a family (which I and many of the young women I have spoken to believe you greatly exaggerated if not completely invented), but you forgot to address the stigma of self-identifying as a feminist. In your lecture, you degraded “angry feminists” in your dismissal of the “women’s movement,” a derisive title that continues to plague and undermine the credibility of women who question the male-dominated culture of contemporary American society.
For a smart, successful woman such as yourself to reinforce the stigma attached to feminism—a stigma that the “women’s movement” did a great deal to solidify and what third-wave and fourth-wave feminists have been working to undo ever since—shows young women who might look up to you that they should be ashamed to want more for themselves than what our society currently offers. These “angry feminists” who you so sweepingly dismiss, were the ones that marched, picketed and fought for your right to attend Princeton University, have a successful career, and a family at the same time. You claim that, “the women’s movement opened doors, but my success is my own.” Maybe you should think about how it would have felt to have all those doors slammed in your face, like generations of women before you, and be a little grateful to the women who were labeled “crazy bitches” and “angry feminists” for prying open those doors for you.
I could denounce the problems with your anti-feminist attitude for many more pages, but I would like to address a different point before short-attention spans and light-hearted verbatims call my readers’ eyes away. Your logic about the differences between young men and young women when it comes to relationships is the same logic employed by the slut-shamers and victim-blamers that perpetuate a rape-culture on our own campus and America at large. One comment from your lecture in particular made your Prince letter look innocuous. In response to an audience question about the “hook-up culture” at Princeton, and how it precludes female students from finding their husbands on campus, you said, “it has always been an issue: the good girls are always competing against the girls that are easier to make than a peanut butter sandwich.” My immediate reaction was to laugh at your brazenness, but soon after my laughter subsided and was replaced by shock and disgust. In this comment, tossed off facetiously before your actual response to the question, you define “good girls” as those who are infinitely willing and capable to stifle their sexual desires and shame all the girls who choose to take pleasure in their own sexuality. And yet you seemed to expect, even condone, a young man’s penchant for casual sexual encounters when you said, “I could never ask a young man, presented with a sexually-available young woman, to walk away, but young women should know better.” This is the exact logic used in cases of rape and sexual assault to excuse the perpetrator and blame the victim. A short-skirt, a revealing top, and civilized men become primates incapable of resisting a sliver of exposed flesh. As women, we must learn to adapt. If we do not want to be leered at, cat-called, groped, assaulted or raped we must “know better” than to wear clothes that invite such actions. Boys will be boys, right Ms. Patton?
As I draw my letter to a close, I am reminded of a quote from Mark Twain that my father taught me many years ago. “Never argue with a fool. Onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.” You are a fool, Ms. Patton. You are trapped in the seventies in how you regard feminism and female empowerment. You are backwards in how you forgive male sexual appetite yet disregard its female counterpart. But I argue with you nonetheless, because you are more dangerous than a regular fool. You are an educated, successful, and influential fool who, unfortunately, has to opportunity to come to Princeton University and poison the minds of the more than fifty students gathered in the auditorium of Whig Clio. So once again, I would like to thank you for your lecture. I gained invaluable information about the challenges that modern feminists like me will face in people like you.
Olivia West Lloyd