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The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?by Leslie Bennetts
Synopses & Reviews
Women are constantly being told that it's simply too difficult to balance work and family, so if they don't really "have to" work, it's better for their families if they stay home. Not only is this untrue, Leslie Bennetts says, but the arguments in favor of stay-at-home motherhood fail to consider the surprising benefits of work and the unexpected toll of giving it up. It's time, she says, to get the message across — combining work and family really is the best choice for most women, and it's eminently doable.
Bennetts and millions of other working women provide ample proof that there are many different ways to have kids, maintain a challenging career, and have a richly rewarding life as a result. Earning money and being successful not only make women feel great, but when women sacrifice their financial autonomy by quitting their jobs, they become vulnerable to divorce as well as the potential illness, death, or unemployment of their breadwinner husbands. Further, they forfeit the intellectual, emotional, psychological, and even medical benefits of self-sufficiency.
The truth is that when women gamble on dependancy, most eventually end up on the wrong side of the odds. In riveting interviews with women from a wide range of backgrounds, Bennetts tells their dramatic stories — some triumphant, others heartbreaking.
The Feminine Mistake will inspire women to accept the challenge of figuring out who they are and what they want to do with their lives in addition to raising children. Not since Betty Friedan has anyone offered such an eye-opening and persuasive argument for why women can — and should — embrace the joyously complex lives they deserve.
"It would be easy to dismiss this as yet another salvo in the mommy wars- — the debate over women opting out of careers to be stay-at-home moms. But Bennetts, a longtime journalist and writer for Vanity Fair, is more interested in investigating what she sees as the heart of the matter: economics. Through impressive research and interviews with experts and with real women, Bennetts shows that women simply cannot afford to quit their day jobs. Long-term loss of income has a cascading impact in areas such as medical benefits and retirement funds, not to mention a woman's sense of autonomy, derived from financial independence. Further, a career supplies a woman with a measure of security for herself and her children in the event of unexpected sickness or divorce. As any woman who has tried knows, returning to the workforce and finding a well-paying job after an absence of years, or even decades, is difficult. Not so long ago mothers would pin a dollar bill to their daughters' underclothes when they went out on a date in case, for some reason, they needed carfare home. Those mothers knew all to well that without money of your own it's easy to be left stranded. As Bennetts expertly shows, it's still true." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A pregnant friend once asked me why all the mothers she knew seemed so angry. 'Lack of sleep and time,' I shrugged. But that's not the reason, or not entirely. New mothers, or at least some, are angry because for the first time they've come up hard against the fundamental inequity between men and women. The biological differences — excruciating childbirth, endless late-night nursing — are stark... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) enough, but the societal expectation that child care is a 'women's issue' feels worse. After all these years of supposed equal rights, it seems men still have more important things to do than watch their children, a message relentlessly hammered home by the insufficient day care, inflexible employers and pressure to take 'mommy-tracked' jobs that burden so many mothers' working lives. It's enough to make a woman quit her job and retreat home, which is what an increasing number of well-educated and well-off women appear to be doing. Though the dip in the numbers of working mothers could be the result of the recession in the early part of the decade, it has been reported (even lauded) as a sign that women, no matter how accomplished, are returning to their traditional role of child rearing. Apparently the idea that women can balance work and family was just a silly fad. Whether having their mothers focused solely on them benefits children is a topic of interminable and sometimes nasty debate, but Leslie Bennetts makes it absolutely clear that abandoning the workplace is not good for women. 'It's hard to understand why so many women are willing to turn over their very ability to feed their children to another person who — if history is any guide — may not always live up to that responsibility,' writes Bennetts in 'The Feminine Mistake,' her important but flawed book. Staying at home deprives women of the real satisfaction that outside work can bring, which Bennetts captures eloquently. But even more perilous is the threat that husbands can die, lose their jobs or move on to younger, friskier mates, all of which leaves women and their children vulnerable to financial disaster. A feminist slogan from the 1970s warned that women were 'one husband away from welfare.' Bennetts takes up that placard, pitching her polemic against stay-at-home motherhood not as a skirmish in the culture wars but as an attempt to save women on the brink of ruin. Bennetts' ambitions are evident in 'The Feminine Mistake's' title, which puts a twist on Betty Friedan's classic call to arms. A longtime journalist for the New York Times and Vanity Fair, Bennetts makes her argument with an onslaught of research as well as extensive interviews with women — mostly from her own professional, East Coast milieu. The stories she recounts of divorce, widowhood and financial struggles by once secure, now panicked and floundering women are compellingly grim, if breathlessly repetitive. Bennetts, whose grandfather deserted her grandmother when Bennetts's mother was 9, obviously finds the idea of being dependent abhorrent and terrifying; she is barely able to conceal her disdain for women whose 'willful ignorance' blinds them to the power, the self-sufficiency, that they've given up to stay at home with their children. With anecdotes and bleak facts, Bennetts dispels the romantic fog that clouds clear thinking about marriage and motherhood. Let's start with the obvious: Nearly half of all marriages in America end in divorce. The rate is a bit lower among college graduates, but still a legitimate source of fear for those whose spouses are the sole breadwinner. Men tend to benefit financially from divorce, while their ex-wives usually see their standard of living sink by more than a third. But that wouldn't happen to you, would it? If your husband left you or got hit by a bus or was thrown out of work, you'd just go out and get a job, right? Here's where 'The Feminist Mistake' delivers a slap in the face: Only 74 percent of stay-at-home mothers who want to return to work land jobs; of these, only 40 percent are able to find full-time, professional employment. And that's after being out of work for an average of just 2.2 years. Women who expect their law degrees and MBAs and professional credentials to protect them are sadly mistaken: The study by the economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett that generated these brutal figures focused on 'highly qualified women.' While it's true that professional women may miss major developments in their fields during the time they've opted out, their career woes are rooted in employers' beliefs that mothers who have stayed home just aren't as serious, as committed to their work, as men are. So mothers, whether stay-at-home or working, have plenty to be mad about. The condition of motherhood — the embodiment of all the 'family values' about which our politicians sermonize so odiously — will make them either dependent on their husbands or subordinate to men in the workplace. And though fathers don't pay a career penalty for procreating, the current state of affairs hurts them as well: They're stuck trying to make enough money to cover the two incomes that today's economy requires, or they're as frazzled as their working wives, whom they barely ever see. None of this is good for children. And Bennetts — whose own children had the same paragon of a full-time babysitter from cradle to college — doesn't provide a convincing answer to the question of who should watch the kids when their mothers work. Nor does she acknowledge how truly difficult the logistics of working and caring for children can be, especially for people at the lower end of the income scale. (As the mother of a preschooler, I know this all too well.) And she doesn't admit that some women may legitimately decide that caring for their children themselves is worth the financial risk. But Bennetts does make clear that if mothers continue to leave their jobs, instead of forcing employers and policymakers to address the real needs of real families, no solution will be found. Thanks to Bennetts' ferocious analysis of the economic realities that mothers face, the precariousness of their children's lives should be all the more difficult to ignore. Rachel Hartigan Shea is a contributing editor at The Washington Post Book World." Reviewed by Rajiv ChandrasekaranRachel Hartigan Shea, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Allowing women to tell their own stories of economic abandonment, Bennetts presents a cautionary tale for women pondering giving up economic independence." Vanessa Bush, Booklist
"It has a swift, urgent passion that makes it a real page-turner, and the message is of huge importance." Tina Brown
"Leslie Bennets delivers an incontrovertible argument for economic self-sufficiency as the fundament of women's well-being." Susan Faludi
"Packed with pragmatic, well-researched advice, this manifesto on the power of financial independence is bound to inspire discussion among career women as well as stay-at-home moms." USA Today
"Leslie Bennetts' powerful book should be a wake-up call for women of every generation. No woman could possibly confuse care and cash again after reading about the true price women pay for economic dependence." Liz Perle, author of Money, a Memoir
Renowned Vanity Fair journalist Bennetts electrifies the debate over women's life choices with a riveting new book that completely redefines the work-family question. She offers a persuasive argument for why women can — and should — make more than one kind of mark on the world.
About the Author
Leslie Bennetts has been a contributing writer at Vanity Fair since 1988, writing on subjects that have ranged from movie stars to U.S. anit-terrorism policy. Before joining that magazine, she was the first woman ever to cover a presidential campaign for the New York Times. Bennetts lives in New York City with her husband and their two children.
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History and Social Science » Feminist Studies » General
History and Social Science » Feminist Studies » Work
History and Social Science » Gender Studies » Womens Studies
History and Social Science » Sociology » Children and Family