Ladies, the Only Degree Worth Having is an M.R.S

Here are some of the things that I worried about while I was an undergraduate: work, money, what I was going to do after I graduated, the new coalition government, work, whether I should be having more sex to fulfil the student experience, my omnipresent pasta food baby, work and does that sonnet really mean what I think it means or am I definitely reading too much into it and the reason that it rhymes is because it sounds nice? 

Here are things that I did not worry about while I was an undergraduate: finding a husband.

According to Bo-Jo and ‘Princeton Mom’ Susan A. Patton, I got this precisely the wrong way round. The main reason to go to uni is, of course, to find a husband. I am now doomed to the life of a cat-obsessed spinster. Excuse me just a sec while I cry into my degree certificate...

Patton, one of the first women to attend the prestigious Ivy League, first came to attention when she penned an article urging the current female Princeton students to start the search for husbands as soon as they had located their dorm rooms. Now she’s broadening her reach and writing a book about it. Essentially, as soon as you first set foot on campus, the clock is already ticking for you to find a smart husband from the right background and with the right sort of ideals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is exemplified for Patton by those men who attend Princeton. Including her sons. Of course, the menfolk don’t need to worry so much about finding a wife: they can marry someone younger and/or less well educated anytime they like (according to Patton, 'the universe of women he [her son] can marry is limitless') While at university, dudes such as Patton's sons can carry on the serious business of broadening their intellectual horizons and shrivelling their livers. 

Although very much aimed at the Ivy League culture (Patton does, for example, seem unnaturally obsessed with the Princeton colours), her advice feels all too familiar. The idea that an undergraduate should be finding the husband to be the “cornerstone” of her “future and happiness” has its equivalent over here as well. When I was in my first year at Cambridge, I was told that there was a saying that a girl should graduate with, ‘a first, a blue, or a husband’. 

Perhaps reading that, you now think I am one of those Post War graduates, among the first to receive their degrees when Cambridge was very much a boys club. How lovely that the Vagenda attracts such a broad age range of writers! I sincerely hope that there are some Post War Women graduates reading this blog (there grandma, whose graduation from Cambridge was so unusual that it was in the newspaper, loves it- Ed), but reader, I graduated in 2011. By the time that I started, Cambridge had been awarding official degrees to women for fifty years. Admittedly, this is not long compared to some other universities or its own eight hundred year history and it is still very much enamoured with its own traditions. But it is also the place where I came into contact with some of the most amazing (and formidable) women. As with any other institution, sexism at Cambridge is neither irrelevant nor straightforward. 

It was still with some shock that I first heard the phrase that you either leave Cambridge with ‘a first, a blue, or a husband’ (a blue is a commendation for sporting prowess). This was promptly compounded when the person who made me aware of its existence explained that the friend who had told her very much intended to live up to it. As a motto, it was still much in use. Not for the first time, I wondered if I had accidentally walked into an Evelyn Waugh novel. It goes without saying that a first class degree from any university is a worthwhile ambition. As is the sort of sporting achievement recognised by being awarded a blue, if that is where your particular talents lie and, unlike me, you can look at a pair of trainers without getting a stitch. And just two years after graduating, it is becoming increasingly clear that some of my friends did indeed meet their future spouses overs sickly sweet shots in freshers’ week.

Why, then, does the motto of ‘a first, a blue, or a husband’ feel so archaic? None of the constituent parts are in themselves bad things with which to leave university, and all are certainly a lot better than a letter from the Student Loans Company telling you exactly how much you owe. As the unsporty holder of a lowly 2.1, it could simply be that the bitter taste in my spinster mouth comes from the feeling of being told that I have, in essence, failed. I failed at my degree and then failed to find a husband. 

But, in terms of academia, one of these things is not like the other. 

Except, that is essentially what ‘a first, a blue, or a husband' is saying. A degree is the same as a husband. In its tripartite formulation, there is no space for my fellow 2.1 spinsters: girls are exceptionally brainy, sporty, or married. To make a good marriage, all three preferably. Just so the future in-laws know that you’re of good stock. If I had only tried a bit harder, then my time at Cambridge would not have been so wasted and I would be happily married. Although, as a current postgrad, perhaps I am now getting my do-over. I just need to spend less time in the library researching and more time flirting. I do have some killer Chaucer chat-up lines. 

By telling girls that they should get either a ‘first, a blue, or a husband’, the achievement of the first two is belittled. If you are a man, a degree of any class is a worthwhile achievement and the cornerstone to future success. If you are a woman, it is the equivalent of finding a husband, any husband. For those who do find their future life-partners at university, I’m sure this is true. But importantly, it is equally so for both the men and women who marry their university sweethearts. And their degrees are still also an achievement.

If applied to men, the motto would read, “a first, a blue, or a really good review for a show they took to Edinburgh” or, “a first, a blue, or some amazing networking opportunities for that magic circle training contract”, or any number of other combinations, all equally worthwhile. Applying it to women, however, just serves to reinforce the now very old, and very tired, idea that education is really for boys. They are going to be the lawyers, the scientists, the politicians. A few exceptional women may squirm up to the top as well, but the majority are just going to be housewives anyway. Why bother educating them at all unless a marriage comes out of it? 

This, it would seem, is a particularly pertinent question when put in the context of class. Behind the saying ‘a first, a blue, or a husband’ is the importance of marrying well so that you have someone to support you. Patton also takes great pains to identify the type of man that Princeton women should be looking for so that they can have the right sort of marriage and the right sort of life. By appealing to the idea of the “traditional family”, Patton makes it clear that the Princeton graduate has ahead of her the role of the supportive wife to the important husband. If you marry a Princeton boy, then he will earn enough money and have a good enough career that you won’t necessarily have to, even if you're smarter than him.

Meanwhile, a comment piece in today's Telegraph hot on the heels of Boris's latest "joke" highlights that by educating women to degree level, there are knock on effects for white, working class boys. That's right, by going to university you are preventing a boy from doing just that and then how is he meant to earn enough to make a good marriage? While of course access is a very serious matter, behind this lies the same idea that educating men is more important than educating women: instead of praising women's increasing presence in a world from which they were excluded within living memory, we need instead to make sure that this is not at the cost of preventing men from accessing their proper place within a man's world. Otherwise, as the Telegraph worries, we'll end up with a world of men being kept by their better educated wives, having to do the school run while she dashes out to work in the morning (and in any case her job isn't a 'proper job', apparently involving as it does coffee and chatting to people). Better to make sure that the women stay doing that instead, rather than worrying their pretty little heads about getting a degree and having a career. What Patton, Boris and the Telegraph are advocating is a return to traditional gender roles. Go to university, and instead of becoming a future politician/CEO/writer/engineer, you can be his wife. After all, ladies, the only degree worth having is an M.R.S.

- CK