In the mid-90s, at 18 years old, it never occurred to me that a woman would go to college for the primary purpose of securing a spouse. Even attending a conservative Christian college, I never heard the term "MRS. degree" until many years later, when I lived on campus as a resident director of a dorm with 150-plus women.
Something changed between when I went to college as an undergrad and when I returned to work on campus. Maybe it was just a lack of awareness on my part about what others were discussing; after all, this was before social media. We weren't constantly connected by cell phones and Facebook (now the prime destination for "relationship status" updates and engagement pictures). Maybe it had to do with my personality, friends, and interests. Back then, girls and guys talked philosophy, theology, and music. Sure, my friends and I all wanted to get married, but we weren't obsessed with it. Now, the pressure of college matchmaking has become palpable. I can't even count the number of times I've heard, "My mom and dad told me that if I don't find a husband now when there are so many to choose from, then chances are slim that I'll find one after college."
They feel the need to make the most out of every opportunity, out of every chance encounter with a guy, to prove they are marriage material. Even though guys too have told me that male-female relationships become about sizing up marriage prospects, ladies feel like the onus to snag a husband is on them. Guys, they say, have their pick because on our campus, the women outnumber the men. Just a few weeks ago, several female nursing students told me, "Now that it is spring, it seems like all of our friends are either getting married this summer or getting engaged. And here we are…. Sometimes it's hard attending so many bridal showers and engagement parties. But, we're trying to be happy for them."
I worry that this Christian college version of The Bachelor has too many young women focused on finding their mister, at the sacrifice of the academic, spiritual, and personal development that the undergrad years are meant to bring. Many young women admit restraining their personalities, talents, interests, and the display of their intellect—basically playing the part of the fool—just to increase their chances of snagging a mate.
The thought of women masking their identities for the sake of a potential husband appears to be a peculiar feature of a culture that idolizes marriage. A marriage-at-any cost mentality produces unhealthy people, relationships, and communities. Is it any wonder the divorce rate among Christians, even committed, active, church-going ones, is at 38 percent?
Until recently, I thought the enormous pressure and pitfalls tied to landing a husband during college—where many young women I know bemoan their limited options—was a unique feature of Christian campuses and certain types of churches. It turns out I may be wrong—if I am to believe Susan Patton's advice to the women of Princeton.
After participating in a breakout session at Princeton's Women and Leadership Conference, Susan Patton sent a letter to the editor at The Daily Princetonian, responding to questions she received after the session.
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….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.
Patton's advice based on her observations sounds eerily familiar to the advice doled out to single Christian women. Yet, college-educated Christian women aren't (what many perceive to be) damned to lifelong singleness if they do not marry a guy they've met in college. Even so, like Patton I find myself telling the brilliant and multi-talented women I know to look for their intellectual equal, to be weary of selfish men who give no hint of believing in mutual flourishing. I also tell them not to put their lives on hold for a relationship that may or may not work out.
As college women in our early 20s, or at any other age, it's simply foolish for women to bury our talents or to feign stupidity and incompetence for the sake of protecting men's egos. Some of us do it out of a misguided notion of submission. Sorry, that's not submission. Even some who hold more conservative views of gender roles think so. Submission is not unidirectional (see Eph. 5:21).
Our obsession with and idolization of marriage can poison our good sense and God-sense so that we spew nonsense when it comes to giving advice about marriage and gender roles. As a result, we needlessly hinder capable women who desire to further their education or to exercise their gifts in positions of power and influence. Wrong-headed ideas put undue stress on those pursuing relationships and can lead to bad stewardship of women's gifts and talents.
But I can imagine some countering with, "Marlena, your views and advice make for lots of intelligent and permanently single women." Maybe. But the current college culture—where guys and girls can't be friends without tremendous amounts of pressure, where women feel like they have to feign incompetence or mask their identities in order to secure a spouse—seems far more damaging. There's something terribly wrong when capable Christian women are made to feel insecure about pursuing leadership positions. We simply cannot continue in this vein.
This article is the second in a weekly series on women in leadership and ministry. Look forward to further discussion on this topic each Thursday. Next week, we'll discuss women's enrollment in graduate school and seminary.
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