The letter written by Susan Patton “Princeton Mom” to her fictional daughter/s has attracted world-wide attention.

In it she says that what’s really important for a young woman is to use one’s time at the exclusive and expensive US College to find a suitable mate – one that’s “worthy”, “well educated” and “even smarter”.

Here’s an extract below, but to read the letter in its entirely go here.  (And then to read Wendy Harmer’s own advice to her daughter, Maeve… keep reading.)

Advice for the young women of Princeton: the daughters I never had…

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) we have been bombarded with advice on professional advancement, breaking through that glass ceiling and achieving work-life balance.


susan-pattonSusan Patton. “Princeton Mom”

We can figure that out — we are Princeton women. If anyone can overcome professional obstacles, it will be our brilliant, resourceful, very well-educated selves.

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.

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.

If I had daughters, this is what I would be telling them.

Your loving mother.”

Wendy Harmer responds with a letter to her 13 year-old daughter.  

Dearest darling Maeve, 

If you ever do find yourself at University (er…could you put down that copy of “Pretty Little Liars” and listen to me?) I hope that looking for a husband is waaaay down on your priorities.

Right down there somewhere below gathering signatures to kick Lord Monckton off campus because I imagine that, by then, Gina Rinehart will have bought your uni and installed her resident climate change denier nutter as Vice-Chancellor.

This “Princeton Mom”, Susan Patton, reckons it’s not a bad idea to scope out the talent and look for a future husband in between lectures.

She figures you will be surrounded by men with prospects more than any other time in your life. Men who are intelligent, even smarter than you and wealthy, to boot.

I think it comes down to that old adage: “It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one”.

It’s not a new idea. In fact William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) wrote in the novel The History of Pendennis (1848-1850): “Remember, it is as easy to marry a rich woman as a poor woman.”

I’m not that clever. I Googled it.

I got married when I was at uni. Remember I told you?

Funnily enough, it was also for economic reasons. I married my then boyfriend, Michael Harmer, because the infamous “Razor Gang” of the 70s was cutting living away from home allowances for uni students.

The only way I could fund my education, (because your Grandpa Brown didn’t have the money) was to accede to Michael’s fervent desire that we marry. That way he’d support me and I’d get an education. So I did marry him one morning after uni classes, at the Registry Office. I didn’t even tell your Grandpa.

God forbid you ever have to strike that bargain, but millions of young women around the world do it, every day.

That’s why I hope you always think about women worse off than yourself. Fight for them so they have the same privileges you do. It’s important.

My first husband was a wonderful young man who believed in me. He was working as a fitter and turner in a factory and would come home covered in burns from molten metal, but he supported me… until I could support myself. I knew, even as a teenager, that he was a fine person. I never thought he suffered from a lack of erudition.

Whether he was “worthy” of me never crossed my mind.

Things changed. Like they do in marriages. All the time. We parted. We both have now made good, long, loving partnerships and have children we are proud of.

The one thing I hope you learn from your father and me is that judging people on how “intelligent” you perceive them to be is not going to get you anywhere in this life. 

Nor is trying to find someone who you imagine is your equal or worthy of your affection.

You see, Maeve, despite what the Princeton Mom imagines, “smart” is not a “soaring intellect”.

The two are not to be equated – in any way. At all.

If you think bringing home Albert Einstein the Younger will impress your father and me, think again.

Old Albert made a terrible husband – he was unfaithful, a bad speller, smoked like a chimney, was crap at the violin, dressed like a slob and said: “All marriages are dangerous”.

Likewise, bringing home a member of the Packer or Waterhouse dynasty.  They maybe “smart operators”, but your father loathes gambling and the fortunes built on others’ suffering. He reckons that’s a dumb way to make money. Marriage to a billionaire won’t impress us. Nor will becoming a billionairess yourself.

So, you may ask, what’s “smart”? What’s “clever”?  And what does “erudition” mean, anyway?

Especially when we can all Google.

Who’s worthy of an intelligent young woman like you?

I’ll tell you.

A person who is worthy of you is one who recognises and honours your own good heart. Supports you in your determination to make your own way in the world and to leave it a better place than you found it, come what may.

That takes courage, sacrifice and loyalty, Maeve. Look out for these qualities that will make life sweeter in tough times. The price of admission to a fancy college won’t be your guide.

Men (or women) with “prospects”, or no prospects at all, can easily leave you,  just as you can easily leave them.

Our fortunes change. That’s a given. For better or worse, as someone once said.

I imagine, Maeve, that you will fall in (and out of) love with a lock of hair that falls fetchingly across a forehead, an intricate tattoo on a forearm, a fine turn of phrase or a violin, expertly handled.

Fall in love with all that. I did.

Then, when you’re older and wiser, fall in love with someone like your father who has supported me, your mother, in all my endeavours. Most of all, by leaving me love notes on the kitchen bench to discover in that time before the sun came up when I, reluctantly, left you and your baby bother sleeping while I went off to work. Thousands of notes that sought to soothe all the frustrations and regrets a person has as they pursue “a career” for what often seems no good reason.

Don’t try to predict life’s meandering path, Maeve.

And don’t try to imagine how you’ll travel it – in first class style or trudging along at the back. Despite what they say, the view’s not that different. The triumphs and heartaches don’t spare any of us.

Don’t bank on a thing called a “career” to save you from life’s vicissitudes. It won’t. (Sorry, “vicissitudes”. Google it.)

Your great-grandmother, Nanna Brown always said to me: “Love many, trust a few, always paddle your own canoe.” 

Maeve, you come from a long line of spud farmers, horse trainers, nurses, school teachers, union officials, house painters, publicans, priests and farmers.

All good people.

Do us proud.  That’s enough for us.

We don’t need “better”. Because in our family, you have already exceeded expectations.

Your Mum. Mumma.  xxxx



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  • Reply April 3, 2013

    Janine Fitzpatrick

    Oh God Wendy, you’ve made me think of my own Nana who used to say the same thing to me.

    I think Michael Harmer sounds like a decent bloke (spoken as the wife of a fitter and turner who also helped support me through uni).

    And the second husband doesn’t sound like a bad chap either.

    At the end of the day a husband who will support you through your endeavours is worth more than any amount of money or connections. It’s also handy if they’ve got a sense of humour – there are going to many times in life when you will have to be able laugh because the alternative is crying hysterically while rocking in a corner and that just doesn’t get anything done.

  • Reply April 3, 2013

    Wendy Harmer

    Thanks Janine. I think i’ve made some decent choices, and my fair share of bad ones… to think that as a young woman you can draw up a balance sheet? Dreamin’ Wxxx

    • Reply April 4, 2013

      Julie Macken

      Wendy you rock. Those two letters distill (probably wrong spelling) what Iove about Australia and fear about America. I am lucky to have had a mum who had 10 kids, became a professor and still managed to pursue her dream of owning a pony and being a farmer at the age of 65 – with five brothers and five sisters she raised all of us to be who we really are and many have regretted her success ever since. I love your letter to your little girl – and I love the fact that all the women in my life would also love it. Thanks for that.

  • Reply April 3, 2013

    Catherine Rodie Blagg

    This is the best response to Susan Patton that I’ve read. Wonderful, Wendy.

  • Reply April 3, 2013


    That’s beautiful. It’s made me teary.

  • Reply April 3, 2013


    Hear hear!

  • Reply April 3, 2013


    Firstly, I can’t believe that Maeve is 13 already. Secondly, you ruined it all by being a prat about Gina Reinhart.

  • Reply April 3, 2013


    Well said Wendy! I especially love greatnanna Browns advice.

  • Reply April 3, 2013

    Wendy Harmer

    Aaaah, love you Gee. Yes Maeve is 13, Marley is 15 and I am still a prat about Gina Rinehart. All good.

  • Reply April 3, 2013


    I wish I’d said the same thing to my daughter Wendy. Your daughter is in good hands. I hope she loves you back.

    BTW There are now two Rhodas on here I notice.

  • Reply April 3, 2013


    That is an amazing response and perspective. When I first read her letter I thought it was a load. I don’t have daughters but there wasn’t anything empowering or sensible to share with my nieces either! Now I will share your response with them but more importantly with my 20 and 17 year old sons. So good. Thank you!

  • Reply April 3, 2013

    helen b

    What a lovely letter Wendy! Touched my heart and brought a tear to my eye. Lovely, commonsense sentiments. No hiding here, with the revelation of your own experiences through the voice of wisdom.

    Maeve is a fortunate young woman. Trust that through your words, many other mothers will find their own words of wisdom and experience for their daughters.

    I particularly like,

    ‘A person who is worthy of you is one who recognises and honours your own good heart. Supports you in your determination to make your own way in the world and to leave it a better place than you found it, come what may.’

    By the way, been pondering this so much lately:
    Whatever happened to ‘commonsense’?

  • Reply April 3, 2013


    What a lovely poignant letter. My parents always said the way to make them happy was to do what made us happy, respect ourselves and others and come home occasionally. As the parents of happily married, happily single, employed parents I think they put just the right amount of expectation upon us.

  • Reply April 4, 2013



  • Reply April 4, 2013

    Rachel @ Reality Chick

    Love your work Wendy X

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    Why did you keep Michael Harmer’s surname?

    • Reply April 4, 2013

      Wendy Harmer

      I began working as a journalist and my bosses insisted I use my married name. Even calling me Mrs Harmer in the newsroom (!) So it had been established professionally and it was too late to go back to Wendy Brown. Now my kids are Donohoe’s – all very confusing.

      • Reply April 5, 2013

        Mum of Adult Kids

        I totally ‘get’ the retaining of your first married surname, Wendy. I’ve been divorced for 10 years and still use my married surname, although I haven’t remarried (yet) and I have the same surname as my kids. People often ask me why I didn’t revert back to my maiden name, and I’m not sure I’d change my name if I ever get remarried – it’s been who I am for nearly 25 years!

        Great letter BTW. I just love this! …”A person who is worthy of you is one who recognises and honours your own good heart. Supports you in your determination to make your own way in the world and to leave it a better place than you found it, come what may.”

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    I can see worth in both letters. I don’t think it is wrong to encourage girls to look for partners who are of a similar intellectual level. Incompatibility in this area can breed resentment. But I think it would be wrong to assume that intelligence is only found in university educated people. Encouraging girls to look for someone who is worthy of them, as Wendy has done in the letter to her daughter, is what we should do for all of our children, regardless of their gender. In fact, I’d like to think that we should encourage them to find friends who are worthy of them, regardless of whether or not those friends have partner possibility. I’d like to add that we also have a responsibility to teach them of their worthiness so that they can recognise the people who will stand by their side and support them.

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    Agree Sandy, gold gold gold !

    It was good to be reminded of my roots and my amazing , wise and special Grandma Blue especially now am a Grandma too!

    Whats wrong with being a prat about Gina, it made me laugh.

    I will pass this on to my 17 year old niece too and my son and his 2 boys.

    Thanks Wendy and the hoopla gang for your daily gems.

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    Beautifully written Wendy. Brought a tear to my eye. I agree absolutely.

  • Reply April 4, 2013

    Mim Adamson

    YAY! ONYA Wendy! I raised two sons and tried to instill similar values and wisdom.

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    Fabulous quote from your great grandmother. I’m going to write it out and stick it above my daughters’ mirrors.

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    Lovely. Perfect.

  • Reply April 4, 2013

    Kerry c

    Made me ready too. How lovely for your daughter to have a great Mum like you with such sensible advice. I get the Princeton sons of that woman are absolutely cringing.

    I don’t think you are being a prat about Gina…. I think she needs a lot more parts around to bring her back into the Earths atmosphere.

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    Wendy Harmer at her finest – You have a gift Wendy- terrific heartfelt,practical,articulate response – with great words to “google” the meaning of…:-)

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    Your message was so true and lovely we have just had a daughter in law that died and no woman would been prouder than I she was the most wonderful caring Daughter in law or even daughter anyone could have.She was married to my son for for just 2 days before she died of bowel cancer but she had more courage and love to give than any wealthy or so called educated person I know. She left behind a severely handicapped girl of 16 but we know now Pav can understand every sound she utters .So girls be happy have a good life with or without a husband but like Pavlina leave the world a better place for being here,because we know she did.

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    I reckon when the time comes Maeve will choose someone like her father…because she has seen what makes a good marriage and won’t settle for less.
    My advice to my daughters (and sons): Marry your best friend, someone who recognises how beautiful and special you are, someone you can live with and laugh with, someone who completes you.

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    Fabulous letter Wendy.

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    Wonderful letter Wendy. Could not even believe what Princeton Mom wrote…

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    I married a sparky. I’m an environmental scientist. But here’s the thing- he is smarter than me, he is kind and sweet and makes me a better person. We are a fabulous team and I can’t rave about him enough. We laugh a lot. We’ve only been together 9years or so. He is now doing an engineering degree. No man I met at uni would have measured up to this sparky. Not everyone can afford uni. The Princeton moms letter also sells blokes short. Many blokes like and seek out smart women, women who can challenge their ideas.

  • Reply April 4, 2013

    Christine Gates

    Wonderful read over breakie – Thanks Wendy. I recently hand wrote and snail posted a letter to my adult son, mixture of love, wisdom and shake up message.

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    Fabulous! I wrote a 13 year old a very special birthday letter along similiar lines and really enjoyed your wonderful letter.

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    Lovely letter Wendy. Will Maeve take it on ? I hope so.

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    I will be saying something very similar to my daughter, thanks Wendy, brilliant as usual xx

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    Brilliant Wendy, brought a tear, thanks I will be writing a letter to my kids too now! Thanks xo

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    Love the ‘baby bother’ ref Wendy. The stuff going on with Susan Patton and Sheryl Sandberg reiterated for me that women are sometimes their own worst enemies and drove me to write this in frustration

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    Did any of you read through all the Comments in The Age yesterday below the article on this topic??

    If you did, you would have realised that there were a number of women who were at university in the late 80s and 90s who were sold a crock –
    for whom the old feminist “you don’t need a husband – you need to focus solely on your career – the husband can come later” spiel has in many cases proved to be disastrous.

    These are the women who are now in their late 30s and into their 40s, single, with little hope (save for IVF) of having a family. A family that they realise they DO want, and now feel very upset at missing out on.

    These Aussie women were saying that Princeton Mom is bloody well correct, and that they wish they’d been given her advice when they were at uni.

    I am one of them.

    Princeton Mom is not telling you to marry for money etc. She’s saying that you probably won’t ever have access to as many available and intelligent men, with whom you have commonalities etc, as you will while studying.

    And she’s 100% correct. Take it from a 45yo single woman.

    Anyway, I think these comments that were being made by local Australian women under The Age article were extremely telling and important.

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    I too married a fitter and turner come teacher- just once. 27 years later it is still good if not fabulous. Let me tell you his intellectis astounding,but more importantly is his humanity. ihave a dear friend whose beautiful daughter has met and fallen in love with one of the very ” eligible” young men of one of those families. Her mother was concerned and has been given a hard time for her daughter’s rise in status. My response was- is he good to her…yes. Do they laugh at the same things…. Yes , how does she fit in with his family….they love her….. . This particular young girl is not at all needy, she is independent and still carrying on her studies and is very happy in her love life. If, she marries into this family she will be well off. But she already was because she loves her family and has not lost sight of where she comes from. Meeting this chap just happens as does life.

  • Reply April 4, 2013

    Pauline W

    I agree with Liz. I think many have missed the point of Patton’s letter. She is just saying that there will never be as many men around you with the same interests/intellect than at uni. She is right. A career isn’t going to keep you warm at night. We have misled the younger women in telling them they can have it all. Everyone of my single friends, and my daughter’s unpartnered friends, regardless of their career and how well they can cope on their own, want a man.

    The Hoopla ran a series on how to find a mate online!

    I believe Wendy prayed for one in Ireland before she met her current husband.

    Your letter is lovely and what we all want for our children but you are assuming there is plenty of choice out there and everyone will get to find a mate. The truth is there isn’t.

    • Reply April 5, 2013


      Pauline and also Liz above you, simply put there are no guarantees for a partner/happiness/kids/career etc. in life. Only ‘death and taxes’. The rest is abitrary. I don’t think Feminism offered women ‘to have it all’, and anyone would be a fool to think you can have ‘it all’. (‘Enough is as good as a feast’ is another old saying). To me Wendy’s letter to her daughter is a validation of who the young girl is and her monther’s hopes for her life.

  • Reply April 4, 2013

    Aeron Winters

    I love your letter Wendy. I have said similar to my own daughter, just not in a letter. “Princeton Mum” has some interesting ideas, not of which make much sense to me. My dad was an automotive mechanic, but her was also a voracious reader of any and all non-fiction (he never read a novel in his life) so he was a tremendous source of information on nearly any subject you could imagine. Back then I didn’t need Google, I had dad. I guess what I’m trying to get across is that even though he wasn’t university educated (he didn’t ever complete his school certificate) he was one of the smartest and wisest people I have ever known. Going to the best university doesn’t necessarily mean you will be a ‘smarter’ person or worthy of sharing your life with another.

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    And, of course, don’t discount that your daughter might find all she needs – with another woman! 😉

    I know I did!!!

    My beautiful woman is far less ‘intellectual’ than me, neither of us have any money, but the love that sustains us and the incredible partnership we have built has me waking up every morning feeling like the luckiest person on earth (this despite going through a pretty rough financial and employment situation at present).

    Hopefully young girls will also have the option to marry whomever they love – man or woman- by the time Maeve is older 🙂

    • Reply April 4, 2013

      Wendy Harmer

      I certainly haven’t discounted that Kath! Would not worry me one bit. Your relationship sounds wonderful. Well done, you and yes, I hope you have the option to marry one day.

      • Reply April 4, 2013


        Wendy, I have no doubts that you would love and support your children no matter what! That’s what makes you such a great mum 😉

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    Yay Kath, I was about to say a similar thing!
    I also hope for marriage equality VERY SOON. It’s important. Not everyone wants to get married, but everyone should have the opportunity to if they do want it.

    Anyway, everyone is so right about the ‘intellectual equals’ tihng. My sister left school in year 10 to become a chef. She is a very smart person. My boyfriend didn’t finish high school and is a very smart person. My dad left school in year 9 to work on railways and pipelines and mines and is a very smart person. I did my TEE and got into university twice (though didn’t pursue it) and I’m certainly not any smarter than any of them. Our intelligence and our education/job/career/life choices are not really equated at all. Some people are probably geniuses yet will never have the opportunity to access higher education.

    That original letter was written from a ridiculously priveleged pedestal. Gross.

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    Love many~ good one. Paddle your own canoe unless the river dries up, or you lose some faculty. Good hearts get tested and can break on sacrifice, courage and misplaced loyalty.

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    Im with Liz. Finding a bloke aint easy these days. Some of us were so busy building careers, we forgot to invest in our personal lives.

    On a more cynical level, its just as easy to fall in love with a rich bloke as a poor one.

  • Reply April 5, 2013


    Thanks Pauline, Kryptogirl.

    Kryptogirl, I love the very last line in your blog piece – sums it up.

    Wendy, I think your gorgeous letter needs this addition:

    “And remember, finding a decent man later in life (presuming that you want one) is damned hard work, and can sometimes be impossible. Also remember that your fertility doesn’t last forever.”

    If someone had made those two points clearer to all Gen X women (instead, they were never even discussed), how different things might have been for many of us.

  • Reply April 5, 2013


    There seems to be some dust in my eye Wendy.

  • Reply April 5, 2013


    Oh Gee, I thought Susan Patton was writing a satirical piece!

  • Reply April 5, 2013

    Benison O'Reilly

    I children learn more by what we model (our own behaviour and belief systems) than expressly teach them. You and your husband have modelled the type of life that Maeve will seek out, lucky girl.

    Urging women to hook up at university (presumably for life, although in reality half the marriages wouldn’t make the distance) seems based on an assumption the men would be equally keen to settle down. I’d suggest the young men of today wouldn’t. Times have changed.

  • Reply April 6, 2013


    To be super smart, to have to slow your brain and your thoughts and your words for almost everyone you meet is very difficult. If you were super smart, Wendy, you’d know that. There is nothing wrong with trying to find a partner who can keep up with the pace of your brain. It is not incidental.

  • Reply April 21, 2013


    That is ever so true and eloquently written Wendy, and it brought a tear to my eye. I hope the same for my baby girl and all those I teach – find the one who sees you, supports you, has a big heart and one that can forgive and be loyal. Find the one who is on your side no matter what and loves you regardless.

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