Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Please, Leslie Bennetts, Tell Me I'm Wrong...

Tonight I'm going to hear Leslie Bennetts interviewed by Elissa Schappell at the New York Public Library. Bennetts is also speaking at a salon I'm a part of, next week. So, to prepare for said events, I excitedly started reading her book, The Feminine Mistake -- how can anyone who has written about Betty Friedan pass up a book with such a title? But the prologue itself gives me pause. Not for the reasons expressed by the "stay at home brigade," as Bennetts calls them in her retort on HuffPost to the barrage of opening critiques she's received from SAHMs, but on behalf of my generation.

Well-intentioned and heartfelt, Bennett's writing nevertheless positions younger women as in need of cautionary tales. Some of us, no doubt, do, and Feminine Mistake is full of important information about what happens when opt-out wives get left. But many others of us clamor instead for tales of workplaces that have realized women (AND men) have families. Where are the cautionary tales aimed at corporations about how bottom lines suffer when they fail to retain their women? Or the cautionary tales aimed at young husbands about how miserable they'll be if they opt out of time at home with the kids?

Thumbing ahead, Bennetts writes about the difficulties of reentering the work force and the penalties women pay for their time out (and the need for crucial changes in the divorce laws). But the tone set early on (and Leslie, please tell me I'm off - I want to be - I'm still in the early chapters) seems to focus on personal decision-making, rather than much-needed structural (aka workplace) change.

Wait - I'm switching to second person, so let's go with it:

Leslie, you completely have me when you wrote that the real issues behind women's work/life predicaments have nothing to do with words like "choice" and "values." But then you write about the "willfully retrograde choice" of women who opt out on the very next page. If you ask me, the "feminine mistake" has been -- to borrow a phrase from my elders -- a focus on the personal at the expense of the political, the structural. I think you and I will both agree that words like "options" are meaningless until we are talking about viable workplace options -- not the "option" to work or not.

A personal postscript: Raised to be my own person and divorced at 35, I have never for a moment expected that a husband would support me for the duration. These young women who keep appearing in print are certainly not the majority. As I thought Heather Boushey of the Center for Economic Policy Research rather convincingly documented, the "opt out" phenomenon named by Lisa Belkin back in 2003 was not hard evidence of a generation bailing on work but rather a dip in women's labor market participation due to a recession. Why do young mothers, instead, keep getting castigated, warned, and blamed? (I'm thinking of other books here...more soon.)


*e said...

Speaking of other such books, you might want to check out Linda R. Hirshman's Get to Work if you have not read this text. It shares a similar subject matter with Bennett's book - and I think a comparative reading of the books' recommendations might be generative. Plus, it's a very short text - quick comparison is possible (just not for us thesis writers...!).

Patti Binder said...

Hmmmmm. Deb-- I'm so glad you are reading the book and blogging about it. I'm curious to hear what you think as you finish it.

My friends have also been talking about the book Flux by Peggy Orenstein which may take the wider view about the culture shift that needs to happen, given her point of view.

Of course, I haven't read that one either myself. But I probably should!!!

Deborah Siegel said...

*e: I take issue with Hirshman too, though, as with Bennetts, I laud aspects of her impulse. Thanks for the prod - I do see links some thorny links between Hewlett-Hirshman-Bennetts and will blog more bout that soon! let's discuss.

patti: I deeply admire Peggy Orenstein's Flux and indeed have been inspired by her concept of a "half-changed world" in my own writing. I think that descriptive coinage is brilliant, and a helpful way for younger women to contextualize our lives. We've come a long way...maybe, huh?!

Becky said...

I was disappointed that The Feminine Mistake put the entire blame on women and their "choices." While she quoted others talking about the issues, she veered away from them and really had nothing useful to say about changing them, IMO.

Anonymous said...

It may be a "mistake" for women to become 'stay-at-home-moms' if all they're doing is "stay at home". I think that some of the reaction is because they're being grouped together in one category. Reality is, if the stay-at-home mom is there with the children (as in "homeschooling") then it's the right decision. No one will disagree that there's a lot to be desired with public education, or even private education for that matter. Most schools do not teach your children what's right and wrong (only what's "politically correct" and what's not). The "values" system is not there and it's obvious to anyone who's met homeschooled children in general; they're much more educated in all arenas (such as a 16-year-old who knows how to care for a 7-year-old who got hurt at a playground even though they don't know them). Most structured education systems keep children with their peers (same age group) so they do not know how to deal with children of other age groups, adults, etc. Perhaps Leslie Bennetts should re-identify the "stay-at-home moms" as those who stay-at-home while the kids are in school and does nothing much during the day, vs. homeschooling moms who have a very difficult job in teaching full-time as well as doing all the household chores and responsibilities that exist as well. I think homeschooling moms are more valuable and important to the foundation and development of the family & children's lives than a female CEO of a corporation, no matter how much money she makes.