26 October 2008

The Feminine Mistake

Can we be frank? This book scared the shit out of me. But in a good way, I think.

In THE FEMININE MISTAKE, Leslie Bennetts argues that too many women are willing to give up on their careers and become "full-time mothers," to their detriment later in life. (The quotes are employed because as one of Bennetts' subjects points out, what mother isn't a mother all the time?) Because women traditionally have not worked while raising children, young married women are all too willing to give up careers they don't love (instead of finding work they like better) to stay home.

If women stay home, they normally don't keep up with their fields or add to their skill set, so if something should happen to their husbands (death, career-ending injury, divorce) they won't be prepared to re-enter the workplace. Even if they want to, the workplace might not take them back in, dramatically decreasing their earning power over time. Yet society still looks askance at working moms, some even going as far to say that women shouldn't have any children if they won't "raise them full-time," i.e. stay at home to take care of them.

The real scariest part of this book is the first 150 or so pages, in which Bennetts reveals interview subjects who have made what one might call "the feminine mistake": By staying at home they placed their economic trust in their husbands, and that was a Big Mistake. These middle- to upper-class women belong to the demographic for whom staying home is a choice, but now they have no choice, and it scares them.

As a twentysomething I don't normally dwell on my career in 20 or 30 years. (Or 20 or 30 months, for that matter.) But while I was reading this book I could not stop thinking about issues like housework parity and maternity leave. I really got the sense that this book was for me, partly because of Bennetts' invoking of a 2005 New York Times story in which a very small survey of Yale undergrads led to the conclusion that most women in my generation would prefer to stay at home. The claims the article makes have since mostly been debunked, but I still got something out of this that a woman who has already made kids and made some of those hard choices might not. (There are some chapters for them as well, including one to reassure working moms that their job gets easier when their kids, like Bennetts', become teenagers.)

It's not a perfect book by any means; I would have liked Bennetts to find more subjects like the woman who was able to re-enter the workforce after 3 years out by continuing to stay active in her field. And she might have further addressed one of the key components to why so many women, and not just doctors and lawyers, find it so difficult to work and raise a family: That workplace policies, traditionally been written by men for men with wives at home, fail to take into account the needs of two-income families and working moms in particular. And okay, some of her advice amounts to "Stop feeling sorry for yourself!" but on the whole, I would recommend this book to all of my female friends (and some of my male friends as well). Even if they violently disagree with it, I think it would lead to a great discussion.

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