When I spoke to Princeton Mom Susan A. Patton — whose advice to Princeton women to “find a husband” before graduation has gone viral — she bent over backwards explaining why she was “not anti-feminist.” In myriad subsequent statements, she defends herself against charges of sexism — but never against elitism. As she dons black-and-orange outfits to discuss the “good judgment and great fortune to marry a classmate,” one of “a very limited population … smart or smarter than we are,” Patton provides an unusually stark portrait of modern elitism. This is the elitism of meritocracy: a reflexive belief that, not only are the best and brightest at the top, but outsiders are lesser and duller. Everyone else “just isn’t as smart,” “you will meet men who are your intellectual equal — just not that many of them.” Based on these assumptions Patton, the Bronx-raised daughter of immigrants, finds herself promoting marital exclusivity among the elite. And at the same time of year that high school seniors are driving themselves to hysteria over college acceptance and rejection, no less.
Princeton Mom’s ostentatious allegiance to a pecking order defined by U.S. News rankings will sound familiar to anyone who, like me, has spent time at an institution as simultaneously enlightening and enraging as Princeton University. Patton matters because she did what the snobbiest members of her social set generally are too afraid to do in public: speak as they do when they are alone with each other.
Ivy League elitists tend to fit one of two archetypes. There’s the classic silver-spoon elitist who clings to privilege because it is all he has. His greatest accomplishment is the happenstance of his birth; he feels entitled because he is accustomed to getting what he wants. The inverse is the meritocratic elitist. She worked to achieve her status; she studied nonstop for the SATs, turned in extra-credit assignments, cultivated extracurricular interests, beat out competitors. She revels in her status because she is acutely aware of its value — even overestimates its value, to justify the sacrifices she made to acquire it. She feels entitled because she believes she deserves to get what she wants so badly and has worked so hard to win. Because she made it to the top, she assumes anyone of similar skill level can. Those unwilling or unable to rise up, she concludes, are inferior.
Princeton Mom is the elitist that meritocracy creates. When we spoke, she refused to name the “school nobody has respect for” that her ex-husband attended. In 2009, Patton tweeted that her “young son” had aced his SATs. Two weeks (and two tweets) later, she repeated the boast.
She had reason to be proud. Back in 2006, when her older son got into Princeton, Patton wrote a letter to the Princeton Alumni Weekly on “Parental pride — and shame,” remembering her acceptance to Princeton’s Class of 1977, as a Bronx-born NYC public school graduate:
I would be the first woman in my family to attend college. The necessity of my continued education eluded my mother and father. My leaving their home before marriage was an utter disgrace to them. Princeton was unknown to my parents. They saw no honor in my admission to such a prestigious institution, and they were confident that I should be investing myself in other things. It wouldn’t have mattered where I wanted to go away to school. They were adamant that a young girl’s place is in her parents’ home, until she is in her husband’s home. European immigrants and concentration camp survivors, my parents couldn’t understand why at 18 years old, I didn’t direct my efforts towards finding a mate. […] They wanted nothing to do with my college application and refused to sign the required financial documentation. For many years, filing my application to Princeton as an emancipated minor made me feel strong and independent.
She paid her own way through school, thriving at a time when women and, to a degree, Jews were both on the wrong side of the hierarchy. “I have long dreamed that someday I might be the proud parent of a Princetonian,” she wrote. “It will be a (very expensive) pleasure to pay my son’s University bill.” Patton presents her pride in conquering meritocracy — first by herself, then through the proxy of her children — as inextricably tied to the fact that she achieved it on her own, in spite of circumstance. Though not excusable, elitism of meritocracy at least makes sense. Though not every braggart mother has so powerful a back story as Susan Patton’s, a personal narrative of hard-earned success fuels the modern elitist’s sense of superiority.
Calling out the elitism of meritocracy can be confusing. Merit — unlike the happenstance of birth — is worthy of pride. Those who ascend to the top of the meritocracy have achieved the American dream. Their elitism, however, is still obnoxious. Because the system is fluid, the meritocrat is in a constant state of proving herself. Her elitism is high-strung and hyperanxious. When boastful, she is unapologetic: She mistakes her snobbery for a victory lap, something she earned.
At all levels of the meritocracy, status-consciousness is inescapable. Take the perennial “Safety! School!” chant that routinely pops up at private universities’ sports games. Status consciousness is so pervasive that participants constantly feel compelled to acknowledge (or rub in) their relative standings in the system. The anxiety is so commonplace that it has doubled over into the realm of mockery: Bamboozled by “bizarre” Cornell students chanting it at a Harvard-Cornell game, the Crimson later published a letter clarifying, “Cornell ‘Safety School’ Chant Full of Irony.”
Ultimately, Princeton Mom’s belief in a female “shelf life” is so retro as to be laughable to most in the mainstream. (With a few notable exceptions.) Even country music isn’t that conservative anymore. Her brutal brand of elitism, however, is a hallmark of the here and now. And it’s something everyone should revile, even people with perfect SAT scores.