When Leslie Bennetts urged women to stay in the workplace after starting a family, she outraged millions of Americans. JC Sutcliffe reviews the lessons we can take away from her book – and its limitations
Read almost any website on which Leslie Bennetts has been published, or her book reviewed, and you will find page after page after page of comments from angry women telling the author of The Feminine Mistake exactly what they think of her. She’s crazy, sick in the head, needs counselling, and far worse.
So what has this Vanity Fair journalist done to deserve such wrath? Not only has she dared to carry on working instead of staying at home full-time with her children, but she has also dared to break one of America’s most powerful taboos and question why full-time motherhood – in other words, giving up a professional life – has been so glorified of late. Her main aim, however, is not to pass judgement on women who make the choice to give up work, but to set out in precise detail the economic and personal risks that every woman is taking once she decides to become economically dependent on the father of her children.
The Feminine Mistake is a very long piece of journalism based around interviews with working women, stay-at-home women and professional advisors of various sorts. It moves from the negative stories – the women who were left bankrupt with three children and a few thousand dollars a year while their husbands moved on to ever more flourishing careers – to the positives: what are the benefits, aside from the obvious one of a little extra money, for women who continue to work.
The most common criticism of the book is that Bennetts expects people to plan their lives around negative events. Many of the women she interviews, and the women who spend their time haranguing her, are offended that she wants them to think about the possibility of their husbands and partners not being around one day. With US divorce rates at around 50%, the possibility of being left alone is not exactly remote. When you take into consideration the possibility of the breadwinner’s redundancy, other unemployment, long-term illness, disability or even death, it starts to seem surprising that any woman would give up work without a serious and effective financial contingency plan.
But almost all the women Bennetts interviews have one thing in common: ostrich-vision. They trust their husbands to share everything with them, not treat the money they earn as belonging to one person but to both partners in the marriage or relationship, and assume that nothing will ever go wrong. Essentially, their plan is based on trusting their partners – and chance – not to let them down. The interviews, however, show that time and time again something does go wrong, even if only temporarily, such as a year-long period of unemployment, and that it has catastrophic consequences in terms of immediate financial viability and long-term lifestyle and emotional and mental health.
Trust is, of course, a perfectly reasonable and desirable sentiment in a relationship. The problem is that it’s almost always the woman who has to trust, which immediately creates an inequality (and this inequality would be the same if it was the man giving up work entirely). Even if the mother of their children does leave, men still have financial ability thanks to their career – an investment to which both partners have contributed during the relationship, but which only the man continues to benefit from after separation. US alimony settlements for women and children are being continually reduced, partly because the courts assume that a stay-at-home woman who once worked as, say, a lawyer will be able to provide for herself within a relatively short period. Unfortunately, this does not reflect the reality: that it takes very few years of being out of the workforce for a woman to become financially non-viable.
Bennetts goes to great lengths to show that none, or very few, of the women she features thought that any of this – the divorce, the husband’s drink problem, the redundancy, the control-freak behaviour over the smallest amounts of money – would ever happen to them. Of course, none of this convinces the women she interviews who are just starting out on marriages or families. Those kinds of things only happen to other people, the consensus seems to be. But someone has to be ‘other people’, and it makes sense to at least have a contingency plan.
Bennetts’ preferred option, of course, is for women to continue working. She lists many benefits of remaining in employment. Marriages where both partners work, for example, are more secure than ones where the woman stays at home. This might sound surprising, but consider the extent of the inequality that develops when one party gives up much of her previous life outside the home. Among stay-at-home women whose relationships are happy and satisfying, Bennetts notices a subtle shift in attitude towards power and equality: “The dependent wives…typically judge the wisdom of their choice in terms of how the husband handles that power, rather than questioning the wisdom of giving him that power in the first place. To justify that sacrifice, such wives often contrast their own husband’s generosity with the less forgiving attitudes of other men.”
Another important point Bennetts makes is about the harmful effect this whole situation could have on women’s prospects in general, both in terms of getting into education and succeeding at professional careers. If universities and employers see women just dabbling for a few years, they will become increasingly unwilling to invest in them, concentrating instead on men. But one solution to this could be totally equal parental leave rights. This would remove one of the biggest factors of discrimination – that only women will leave to look after children. It would also send a clear message to men that it’s OK to interrupt their careers to have a family (as many Canadian men have discovered since the right to 37 weeks of parental leave was introduced).
It’s all interesting material and worth reading. But there are several reasons why The Feminine Mistake might not have quite such relevance for a UK audience. The first, and most striking, point is Bennetts’ firm and very American belief in the natural virtue of work, whatever that work is. She sets out her stall early on by saying “I’ve never taken more than a weekend off between jobs since [the age of 20].” Perhaps I’m the unusual one here, but I’m not sure why that is something to be proud of. Life isn’t just about work, however enjoyable.
For some people, however, work is never enjoyable. These are the people who are largely ignored in The Feminine Mistake, even when Bennetts makes an effort to widen the circle of her interviewees. What about the woman whose job consists of sitting in a Texas call centre waiting for abuse from customers of the bank that pays them next to nothing? Or the woman who presses the buttons on the deep-fat fryer at MacDonald’s, or who works at Wal-Mart but whose wages are so low that her family actually qualifies for food stamps? These women are not the target readers of the book, but it would be interesting to see whether Bennetts’ advice changed according to the level of potential fulfilment an individual’s job offered.
A related question that Bennetts doesn’t ask, but one that really needs to be asked, is whether women are really any more eager to give up their jobs than men, or whether the statistics are skewed because it is still simply not acceptable for a man to exchange work for family. Men and women have to work at jobs – sometimes even ones that are supposed to be interesting – they detest, to the point of feeling that going to work is killing them. I know people of both sexes who would give up their jobs in a second if they possibly could, and they don’t see work as bringing any kind of fulfillment to their lives. Can Bennetts honestly say that it’s always better to have a job than not?
Perhaps it is, since working is ultimately about more than the immediate pay packet. Women who give up work lose out on rights to social security (although in the UK, receiving child benefit protects either parent’s National Insurance contributions) and any private pension. They also lose marketability and employability, and this increases dramatically with each year they stay at home, making it difficult for women to return to work when children go to school. But would it really be so radical to suggest less work for both sexes? (I was both amused and appalled to read one statistic quoted by Bennetts that implied that 34 hours per week was part-time.) That way both parents could share childcare responsibilities and still have outside interests. Obviously there needs to be a great deal of social change for such a thing to be possible for the majority of people, but with some adjustment to material expectations and to our celebrated economic system that encourages widening disparity between rich and poor, we might all be able to afford to work less.
Bennetts addresses this briefly, discussing the problems with the American economic and work systems and allowing that they are not really designed to allow men or women any kind of family life. But her own discussion focuses perhaps too much on the financial benefits of a second salary, rather than on what could change to allow families to live on one (or two part-time) salaries. And these benefits apply only to the privileged (educational trips abroad, holiday houses, after-school activities such as ballet and horse-riding). There are other avenues she could have explored: what about a more detailed look at some of the countries where both parents are entitled to a decent amount of parental leave? What about drawing up a few practical suggestions to start Americans thinking about how the system can adapt to them, rather than forcing them to adapt to it all the time?
Although Bennetts says several times that she has interviewed a wide range of women, the overall impression that The Feminine Mistake leaves is of a series of interviews with exceptionally privileged women. This is a shame. Consider how she describes this woman: “Rather than having her own country house, she visits her parents in the suburbs when she wants to escape the city. She and her husband are now debating whether to remove their kids from the private school whose steep tuition has become an enormous burden.” Readers are more likely to be alienated than to feel sympathy. And while this is not a problem of feminism, there is an analogy to the green movement, where too much emphasis on certain values has led to accusations that it’s only possible to care if you have enough money.
Bennetts acknowledges that she is lucky in her own career: she has sympathetic employers and is able to work flexible hours at home. But quite how significant this is seems lost on her: it’s all very well to exhort women to go back to work even when it barely covers the cost of childcare (her sound argument being that over the years your wages will go up and your childcare costs will go down, so even if you only break even it’s a sensible investment in your future), but for some people the logistics of transporting both parents to work on time and delivering and collecting one or more children from nursery are simply too difficult, or so difficult that it doesn’t seem worth it in the short term.
Despite the problems I think the book has, the knee-jerk reaction of most people I spoke to while reading it demonstrates perfectly why Bennetts’ advice to stop and think before quitting work is sorely needed. Instead of listening to my description of the book, people responded by implying that Bennetts was manipulating divorce statistics to make the picture look bleaker or by assuming that the author was a selfish career woman who had little time or emotion for her children, and no patience for anyone who might want to spend years caring for their own offspring.
Aside from a few moments where she expresses her genuine bafflement and incomprehension about why some women would want to stay at home, Bennetts tries to steer this book away from being a judgement on either side; she is not interested in further fuelling the Mummy Wars. This is a sensible approach, certainly in the UK, where the extremes of women giving up work for two decades or being at home full-time seem to me more a media invention than reality for the complicated, messy majority of parents who perform a constant juggling act to both keep up a presence at work and be there for their children.
Whether or not individual women – or men – choose to stay at home or remain in the workforce, something needs to change so that this choice doesn’t entail massive risk and sacrifice. As Bennetts says: “Nobody ever questions a man’s right to have a family as well as doing meaningful work; nobody ever talks about men ‘having it all’ just because they’ve managed to sire children and hold down a paying job.” In a New York Times article Bennetts quotes, Matt Miller from the Center for American Progress points out that the current situation is not – or should not be – a women’s problem but a human problem, something that both men and women need to address for their own and society’s best interests. In the meantime, women on both sides of the Atlantic who are deciding whether to stay at home or continue working when they have children should read The Feminine Mistake before they make important economic decisions they may live to regret.
You can buy The Feminine Mistake at Amazon.co.uk