“Give a girl an education, and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody.”
— Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
Once upon a time, we members of the fair sex could content ourselves with a surface knowledge of history, geography, romance languages, and poetry. We were amusing, nay, enchanting, if in addition to a knack for sketching, we also had a good command of the pianoforte and a hefty repertoire of sing-along ditties. A penchant for witticisms were a plus, but not requisite.
In short, dear ladies, had we lived in the age of Auntie Jane, we would have earned the esteemed and coveted epithet of “accomplished” by the age of 13. But as women of the 21st century, we know the Austen-ian accomplished just doesn’t cut it any more.
If you want to be accomplished in this day and age, you need a Pulitzer.
In May 2009, I attended my second Columbia commencement ceremony. This time I was graduating with a master’s degree in Art History. For several months before starting my MA, I felt the need to apologize when I told people what I was studying as a graduate student. “I majored in Economics in college” was the footnote added to most conversations about my future academic plans. Eventually, to combat the tilted heads, puzzled stares, and “whatcha gonna do with that?” I tried self-effacing humour: “I’m going back to school to become a trophy wife.” A book about women painter-etchers of the late 19th-century wasn’t going to get me a Nobel Prize nomination, that was for certain, nor was it likely to earn me much of an income. But people found my declared T.W.I.T status (Trophy Wife in Training) both amusing and acceptable. It was fine that I wanted to write about obscure American artists, if doing so meant I would be a good adviser/cocktail party hostess to my art-collecting mogul husband.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman, in possession of a good education, must be in want of a husband.
Apparently, “settling well..without further expense to anybody” still doesn’t mean settling on my own bank account.
A week ago, I ran into Amanda, a woman who has known me since I was 14 and who thinks of me as existing in a constant state of studentdom. She asked me if I had finally graduated. Yes, I told her. A year ago, with my masters.
“Oh, no! You poor thing!” she exclaimed. “You’ll never find a husband. Half the men in the world will think you’re too smart for them and won’t want you. And the other half… well, they’re just smart enough for you.”
I told her things were only going to get rougher for me — I plan to get a doctorate.
I may not win a Nobel, but goddammit, I want a Pulitzer.
Maybe then I’ll be able to settle well on my book deal, without further expense to anybody.