One of the incredibly smart women I work with sent me a link to an op-ed from Princeton University’s newspaper entitled: “Advice for the young women of Princeton: the daughters I never had.” I presumed this was follow up from the conversation we had during lunch where we discussed our many feelings about the success of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. She followed this link with the word “vomit.” I clicked on it immediately.
In short, the above op-ed is a piece written by a Princeton alum and the mother of two men who attended/are attending Princeton. The author of this op-ed was recently invited to a “Women and Leadership” conference featuring a conversation between Princeton’s President Shirley Tilghman and professor Anne-Marie Slaughter (author of the Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” that gave the internet whiplash last summer). This alum attended the conference with her best friend (a woman she met her freshman year at Princeton in 1973) and together these women participated in breakout sessions with current undergrads about women and the workplace.
All of this sounds so promising, doesn’t it? Well…
To quote the author:” You girls glazed over at preliminary comments about our professional accomplishments and the importance of networking. Then the conversation shifted in tone and interest level when one of you asked how have Kendall and I sustained a friendship for 40 years. You asked if we were ever jealous of each other. You asked about the value of our friendship, about our husbands and children. Clearly, you don’t want any more career advice. At your core, you know that there are other things that you need that nobody is addressing. A lifelong friend is one of them. Finding the right man to marry is another…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. Yes, I went there.”
Let’s for a minute ignore all the assumptions made throughout this piece which promote ageism, heterosexism, and the various assumptions about class and intelligence. And let’s also ignore the fact that roughly half of marriages end in divorce (which is totally true, I discovered, after looking on the CDC website; a website which also lists the percentage of women in the US who douche. I was not aware anyone was tracking that particular statistic, but apparently, they are. Glad to see that number going down, ladies! Douching is so not good for you.)
But back to the matter at hand.
Aside from making me rage in several different ways, I feel like the author missed the real question. The question that I bet a lot of smart undergrads attending a “Women and Leadership” conference would like the answer to: “At your core, you know that there are other things that you need that nobody is addressing. A lifelong friend is one of them.”
So, here’s my letter. It’s about friends.
“My advice to college age women: it’s all about friendship”
Forget about having it all, or not having it all, leaning in or leaning out — here’s what you really need to know that nobody is telling you.
For years (decades, really) women have been bombarded with the pressure to marry and reproduce. I say, who cares? College is not about that, it’s about finding yourself.
For many, this is your first taste of independence. Learn to rely on yourself and learn to love yourself. Devote your time and energy to the causes and activities you believe in. Colleges have an amazing energy that comes from putting a bunch of young, smart people together and giving them the space to form their own ideas and think about how they’d like to change the world.
There is one piece of advice I can offer and it is this: find a group of women. For most of you, the cornerstone of your future and happiness will be inextricably linked to the wonderful women you will meet in college. Open yourself to meeting as many of them as you can, and sharing your ideas with them, since you may never again have such a great concentration of people who come from different backgrounds. Learn from their experiences and let them change you.
As a freshman, you have four classes of intelligent and experienced women to learn from. Take that opportunity and run with it. Use what they teach you and pass it down to incoming freshman. Do not view women as your competition, but as valuable resources. Be there for them when someone breaks their heart. Let them know you will not leave them so easily. Tell them about your dreams and let them make you feel like you can achieve them. Cry to them and let them turn that crying into laughter. Meet as many women as you can. Learn something from all of them. Do not judge them. Argue kindly. Never let them feel alone. Find one you really like and move in with her and pray that your menstrual cycles sync up so you can enjoy cramping on the couch together, sharing horror stories about that one time your diva cup failed.
It’s ok to leave them when you graduate because you will always have a piece of them with you. Use that. Harness their love as energy and rely on it when you are feeling unsure. Email them often. Meet up with them for drinks and tell them everything they’ve missed in one long breath. Remind them of their incredible worth. Find a new group of women in your workplace. Repeat the above.
If I had daughters, this is what I would be telling them.