The Vagenda

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 are…my 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


7 thoughts on “Ladies, the Only Degree Worth Having is an M.R.S

  1. Oh my god. This man, this editor of “The Spectator”, this supposedly intellectual enough to write on a national newspaper – man, is actually interpreting Kanye West’s “Golddigger” as a reaction to REVERSED gender roles. Is he in fucking space??

    I think this paragraph is the stupidest thing I’ve read in a long time:
    “Popular culture reflects the changing realpolitik of sexual capital. In 1964, when Boris was born, Dusty Springfield’s Wishin’ and Hopin’ offered advice about how to snare a man: “Do the things he likes to do / Wear your hair just for him.” Beyoncé offers today’s women different advice: to reject the “trifling good-for-nothing type of brother” who is of no economic consequence and can’t pay the bills. The lament of rejected young men also finds its way into lyrics. “I guess the change in my pocket wasn’t enough,” concludes Cee Lo Green about the women who left him. Or Kanye West: “I ain’t saying she’s a gold digger / but she ain’t messin’ with no broke nigga.” His song struck enough chords to become one of the best-selling US singles of the last decade.”

    I wonder why women, throughout history, have wanted to marry into some sort of economic stability. Could it be that she, on her own, before she was able to vote, work or even walk out the fucking house without a chaperone, had to “belong” to someone that she knew could provide for her and her children, as there were very few (sometimes no) opportunities for her do it herself was her husband to come onto hard times? Or is it actually, as we can so clearly see here, because she is a cold hearted, money hungry, greedy hoe?
    Yeah, that must be it…

  2. The comments are all just bitching about school being geared toward girls’ ‘natural abilities’ and a load of pseudo-science gender-role ‘givens’ on what women and men are like. I also find problematic the accusation on the one hand that women who succeed in the capitalist sense will only want men who do the same – while also bemoaning the ‘poor men’ who stay at home with children – well which one is it?? Does it not occur to them that perhaps we’re not actually that shallow, and maybe, if men have a problem with their place in school etc, they should be willing to work hard for their results – as girls who get good ones do? It seems to me that the guys commenting on the piece are basically bitching because a system which so far has worked perfectly fine for them is now also working as well, even slightly better, for women. This is not the apocalypse they’re making it out to be!

  3. You overlook one thing Sanna Arvidson, in your many on-the-money points, that perhaps the writer is correct and “His song struck enough chords to become one of the best-selling US singles of the last decade.” OR maybe the writer might have overlooked the fact that rather than the ever so poignant and sophisticated lyrical genius that is Kanye West causing the hit to become what it was, the catchy hook and funky baseline, and Jamie Foxx’s mellifluous vocals actually influenced the song becoming such a big hit. Can’t be that though, right? Must just be the echo of all us gold diggers out there, clanging away with our pick axes at all those lovely wallets just bulging with cash.

  4. I’ve come across the same expression at Oxford, too – but I’d heard it applied to both genders, and the interpretation I’d heard placed on it was referring to how there was only really time at Oxford to devote yourself to one thing; sporting achievements, academic achievements, or a relationship. Obviously, this is saying quite negative things about how a relationship works (though I won’t say it was because of my spouse that I got a First, he certainly smoothed the way for me by helping me revise, making me meals during Finals, etc – so relationships can aid rather than detract from achievements), but I’d always thought it was less a sexist comment and more a commentary on how intense life could be at university. But, of course, that doesn’t mean the other interpretation (and your excellent analysis of it) is by any means invalid.

  5. Yes yes yes! I echo the above comment. In three years at Oxford, I have never heard the phrase with ‘husband’ and not ‘spouse’ until reading this article. And the boys talked about it as much as the girls. It’s only ever a tongue in cheek phrase, and is meant to point out that you have no time to excel at more than one of sport, academia and social life. It could be criticised as being hopelessly backward in considering marriage as the pinnacle of social success (it’s presumably an old phrase) but it’s not remotely sexist. (And it’s not true, the vast majority of my friends have just graduated with none of the three, and one has a first, a blue, but not single romance to his name.)

  6. That said, I take the point of the article. That telegraph piece was AWFUL! Screamed of ‘Oh god is this EQUALITY I see before me? Look girls are getting into uni just because they’re more able than boys! WAAH! Someone help me support this bit of the Patriarchy, I think it’s crumbling!’