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.)