A Ring by Spring

by Caroline Berens | 9/24/15 6:25pm

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Nora Masler / The Dartmouth
Source: Nora Masler / The Dartmouth

Before walking into The Mirror’s weekly story assignment meeting last week, the so-called “M.R.S. Degree” was a completely unfamiliar concept to me. The meaning wasn’t exactly hard to discern after an introduction to the idea from my editors and a few context clues, but even then I was confused — does such a thing still exist in our seemingly modern and progressive times?

The term — a play on the common honorific for married women — is used to describe a female undergraduate who attends a four-year college with the sole purpose of finding a husband, often with the intention of achieving a long-awaited dream of becoming a housewife and stay-at-home mom after graduation. Historically at least, many of the M.R.S. candidates left their respective colleges after finding Mr. Right, often before finishing their studies. Even for those who did leave with an undergraduate degree, the goal was to also to leave with an engagement ring or wedding band. Women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor Giavanna Munafo noted that the term stems from traditional views about what a family unit should look like.

“Historically, it’s presumed that the understanding would be women looking for men, a typical breadwinner role for a family in all of these traditional ways that we think about partnership and family,” she said.

Although I have previously mused, as I’m sure many of us have, on how a potential family would align with my future career plans, the idea that I would put forth the effort to attend college simply for the end goal of getting married, not to mention forgoing any professional opportunities, is a foreign one to me.

Munafo said she had heard the term used as an old stereotype and joke, and once I had a grasp on the idea of an M.R.S degree, I would have expressed a similar idea — at least at first. The whole concept doesn’t seem like something that would fit into discussions in 2015.

Yet, perhaps my lack of exposure to the degree isn’t necessarily because its outdated, but instead it may have something to do with my New England background. As it turns out, the term is still very much in existence for some. After interviewing several students, it appears the term tends to be more frequently used in the South, particularly in association with larger state schools.

Aaron Cheese ’18, who is originally from Atlanta, corroborated this.

“The only real interaction I’ve had with [the M.R.S. degree] is when I’m back home,” Cheese said. “Girls would talk about going to a big state school and only going in order to find a husband.”

Claire Beskin ’16, who also hails from the Georgia capital, noted that she had also heard the term back at home in high school, but said she believes most people were speaking about it in jest.

Although Cheese likewise noted that he doesn’t know how seriously the notion is discussed, he said it’s preponderance is likely due to a different culture in the South, one he perceives where people tend to “go to school to go to school.” He said that the case is different at an institution like Dartmouth.

“I think [the M.R.S. degree] probably exists a little bit here, but I don’t think it’s a prevalent part of our culture in any way,” Cheese said.

Beskin spoke differently, saying that she didn’t think the perception of the degree was distinctly different in the South than here in Hanover. She suggested that different familial dynamics, as she has seen, could perhaps engender a more frequent use of the word.

“My perception coming here to Dartmouth from Atlanta is that many more students here come from families where their mom worked, where back in Atlanta, a lot of my friends had stay-at-home moms,” Beskin said.

Beskin noted, though, that many of her friends from home have career ambitions just as much as students here and don’t intend to be stay-at-home moms themselves.

Samantha Cooper ’18 expressed a similar sentiment.

“I think it’s uncommon for girls to seek that out nowadays, especially at a school like this,” Cooper said.

Cooper, in fact, opined that the idea is antiquated and even obsolete.

“I think of it something from my parents’ era,” Cooper said. “Nobody would ever say that — I certainly wouldn’t — and I don’t know anyone who would choose a college for the express purpose of finding a husband.”

Cheese said that he believes attending a highly selective school with such priorities would be hugely wasteful, especially since admissions are so competitive. He questioned why someone would invest a significant amount of money and time to learn material that would never be useful to them.

“It’s taking a spot away from someone at an elite institution, and you’re wasting your time, your college’s time, wasting a lot of money,” Cheese said.

For Cheese, the allure of an M.R.S. degree isn’t something to be proud of, and he noted that he would be extremely disappointed to hear a friend at Dartmouth speak about her ambitions in such a way.

Regina Yan ’19 spoke similarly, saying that she would be perplexed to find a student in the mindset of only searching for spouses here on campus.

“I would be confused, because traditionally you go to college to learn and acquire the skills necessary for a future career,” Yan said.

Yan said, though, if someone told her that they their top priority was to find a husband at Dartmouth, she would be supportive.

“I’d say, more power to her,” Yan said.

Cooper noted that if you put in the effort to get accepted to a school like Dartmouth, you might as well use your talents and abilities instead of hunting for a spouse.

“I’d say, you must have something more to offer [professionally] if you got in here,” Cooper said.

Munafo said that such ambitions could be perceived derogatorily here at the College, simply because of students’ passion and excitement for intellectualism and knowledge.

“I guess any suggestion that there’s more than a very rare bird at Dartmouth who would come here, enroll in classes, go through what it takes to be a Dartmouth student with the primary goal of finding a spouse, seems a little absurd to me,” Munafo said.

Munafo said she hasn’t encountered many, if any, students who she believes would fit such a stereotype. Noting the term’s heteronormativity, she said that she believes that’s true of students of any gender or sexuality.

“For any person of any gender or any sexual orientation, it seems that it would be out of step with what’s really going on with campus culture,” Munafo said.

The term and its implications, however, are not foreign to campuses at elite colleges. In March 2013, Princeton University’s Class of 1977 president Susan Patton penned a letter to the editor in the Daily Princetonian urging the university’s female freshmen to spend their four years on finding a suitable husband rather than solely on professional aspirations.

Much of her advice was centered on the notion that the undergraduates needed to capitalize on the concentrated brilliance and ambition surrounding them, as their options for spouses would be much slimmer after college.

Patton’s remarks were met with significant controversy and backlash, seen as highly offensive, sexist and outrageous. Patton herself was labeled an anti-feminist by many writers and activists.

Despite affirming that they thoroughly disagreed with her foundational claims, Cooper and Yan said certain aspects of her advice contained some measure of truth.

“It is true you’ll never again be in an area where it’s so easy to meet people who are your relative age and have similar goals to you,” Cooper said.

She noted that it is illogical to completely rule out meeting your potential spouse in college.

Yan spoke similarly, explaining that the opportunities to meet a spouse are greater in college, where one is, ostensibly, surrounded by a large group of like-minded people.

“College is a good place to explore because you’re on your own, you can make your own decisions, you’re with a new group of people,” Yan said. “And those people must have some similar qualities to you if you’re at the same school.”

Cheese, although noting that to some extent many students are interested in finding their future spouse in college, said he found Patton’s attitude that girls ought to capitalize on the intelligence of men around them pretentious and toxic.

“It’s very elitist,” Cheese said. “Just not a good mindset to have.”

He noted that it loosely reminded him of eugenics, the notion that the human population should be improved through higher rates of reproduction between people with desirable characteristics.

“It seems to me almost like eugenics, so to speak, like the cream of the crop — putting a bunch of people together and choosing a spouse only from that pool,” Cheese said.

He also noted that college is a formative time intended for people to find themselves, and that would be rendered impossible if they dedicated their time solely to finding spouses.

Despite the unusually high rate of marriage between Dartmouth graduates — allegedly 10 percent in 2012 — Cooper and Yan also pointed out logistical barriers to a woman aiming to leave the College with a husband rather than a degree.

Besides the possibility that people could meet significant others in places besides Hanover during their time at Dartmouth, Yan also remarked that some people come into college already dating someone.

Furthermore, Yan noted the D-Plan’s notorious disastrous effect on potential relationships.

“From what I’ve heard it’s very difficult to have long-term relationships here because of the D-Plan — you’re not guaranteed to spend an entire year with someone, and for that reason I don’t think it’s feasible,” Yan said of coming to Dartmouth with such a purpose.

Cooper also explained that with the college hook-up culture, simply establishing a lasting relationship would be difficult.

“Since dating isn’t as much a part of college anymore, I think it’d be harder to start with,” Cooper said.

Although the goals associated with an M.R.S. degree might seem unsuitable or even impractical here, Beskin and Munafo said that such domestic ambitions are as appreciable as career-oriented aspirations.

Beskin said that she knows some students here who plan to stay home with their kids — after perhaps working for a few years out of college — and such desires ought to be given deference.

“I have friends here who want to be a stay-at-home mom, and that’s a perfectly respectable choice,” Beskin said.

Beskin noted, though, that for most of her friends here, “work is in the cards.”

Munafo spoke similarly, saying that we shouldn’t judge someone for whom finding a spouse in college was a top priority.

“If there’s any particular individual for whom that was a priority, there may be a perfectly reasonable way to understand that person’s world and experiences, without having to judge that,” Munafo said.

Ultimately, Munafo said, although in her opinion the ambitions associated with the M.R.S. degree wouldn’t match up with the “vast majority” of college students today, it’s natural for such questions to arise.

“It is a time in life when people are thinking, ‘Who do I want to be with? Who am I attracted to? Who do I want to forge a relationship with that might stand the test of time? Who might I want to have a family with, however that family might be comprised?’” Munafo said.