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Books: The Feminine Mistake by Leslie Bennetts

July 31, 2007 | Books,Family,Motherhood,Work


Title: The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? (New York: Hyperion/Voice, 2007). Author: Leslie Bennetts has been a contributing editor at Vanity Fairsince 1988, writing on the subjects that have ranged from movie stars to U.S. antiterrorism 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.

Devra published this as a guest post, and I posted it on my old blog, which has since disappeared.

My first reaction while reading The Feminine Mistake was that Leslie Bennetts had a point. Near the end of the book, she said, “Protect yourself.” That’s good advice. Too bad her message was delivered in such a condescending, patronizing way.

Here’s the gist of the book: Bennetts sounds the alarm that too many American women are staying home to raise their children, and she argues they should not give up paid employment for the economic dependency of stay-at-home motherhood.

Combining work and family really is the best choice for most women, and it’s eminently doable.

While she claims she wants to protect women from making the terrible “feminine mistake,” it’s really just another version of Linda Hirshman‘s “get to work” philosophy. Instead of the enraged screaming and stomping we get from Hirshman, though, Bennetts delivers her message with a shrug and a nonchalant:

I’m just reporting the facts.

Bennetts’ examples of things gone wrong for women who stayed home were tragic and terrifying. As, I might add, were the things I read in Ann Crittenden‘s book, The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2001), which I read even before I had children. Bennetts told of women whose husbands left them destitute and with no marketable skills after decades of raising children and supporting their husbands’ careers. Yet Bennetts also gave examples of things gone wrong on the other side with women whose “careerist priorities … take a terrible toll on children.” Tsk, tsk.

She seemed to hold up her experience as the only balanced example of the right thing to do. I don’t think she intended for that message to come through, but it did. In her line of work, then, every woman who becomes a mother should go from writing for The New York Times, which she did for 10 years, to a “lucrative and glamorous” job of writing about celebrities, which she does for Vanity Fair. If she would look beyond herself, she would realize that someone who worked, say, on the copydesk at even The New York Times would not have the same opportunity to segue into a lucrative and glamorous job working from home. It’s not that simple.

She mentioned how important collective organizing could be, but that seemed to be a distraction. The main message was that, really, the only thing women could do was stay in the workplace, no matter what. That’s it. No matter if they’re fired when they become pregnant, they’re shoved out the door because of inflexibility or discrimination or that they’re one sick day or snow day away from losing their jobs.

Like Hirshman, who admits that the workplace can suck, she did not offer any ideas about ways to change it. Bennetts took a nine-month maternity leave, and her husband took seven weeks off when their first child was born, which she admitted was unusual. She also was fortunate enough to find a good nanny. Yet she did not realize that, in saying how incredibly lucky she was, she made clear that finding good childcare is a crap-shoot. But that was her experience, and she expects it to apply to everyone else.

Her entire message blames women — again — for their stupid choices. Instead of channeling anger at discrimination and inequality in the workplace and promoting changes with policymakers, she puts women in the cross-hairs. Not only do women make the wrong choices regarding their children, now they make the wrong choices regarding work, and they’re letting down all other women, or at least the women who live the same lives as Bennetts. (And, gee, how many could that be?)

Where Bennetts, Hirshman and so many others fail is in their misguided notion that all women’s lives are formed from the same cookie cutter. If Bennetts were to have said, here’s what I did and how it worked for me, and I hope you find something that works for you, that might be a whole other story. But her message is: You’re wrong. Dead wrong. Here are the terrible things that will happen to you because of the stupid choices you made.

While Bennetts cast a light on the hypocrisy of the likes of Caitlin Flanagan, Phyllis Schlafly and Laura Schlessinger (about whom Bennetts wrote an article in the September 1998 issue of Vanity Fair), she left Hirshman hiding in the shadows. Just like Flanagan was not the kind of stay-at-home mother she told others to be in To Hell with all that: Loving and Loathing our Inner Housewife (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2006), Hirshman’s message is, “Do as I say, not as I do.” She has followed none of her own rules outlined in Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World (New York: Viking, 2006) and the originating 2005 article, “Homeward Bound.” (She has since changed her “marry up” rule to “don’t marry a jerk.”) She knows exactly where the butter is, she married two men her age, and she “married up” both times. Find the money? She found the money by marrying it. That is not to say Bennetts is not what she says she is. She is just on the other side of the coin. It’s her way or the highway.

As an aside, Hirshman was annoyed that Bennetts got attention for hijacking her own message. Bennetts was angry at “mommybloggers” (or “the momosphere,” as her husband called it) ranting about her book without having read it. Yet she did not complain about Hirshman’s rant, even though Hirshman had not read her book either. See how circular all this is? Where does it go? Nowhere. What gets done? Nothing. These authors may not generate a lot of book sales (Hirshman’s book sold only 4,000 copies), but they do generate a lot of hype and chatter. And that’s about it.

On a Saturday-morning news show, Bennetts said about her book,

I wasn’t making a value judgment. I’m just a reporter. I’m just putting the facts out there. But if you know that three-quarters of the people who make a certain choice are going to end up having really negative consequences to it, those are just facts. So I’m not criticizing anybody personally. If people are defensive, it’s because they feel some insecurity about their own choices. I’m just a reporter.

It all started with an article she wrote — with just a wee bit of snark — in 2005 called “She’s Gotta Have It All.” It was touted to “make the case against stay-at-home motherhood.” A reader left a comment, saying, “you’re a bunch of cowbirds,” which Bennetts explained in detail in her book after discovering that “cowbirds are the shiftless hos of the bird world.” Defensive? Maybe. In any case, she ramped up the snark in her book.

While career women simply “said” things in the book, stay-at-home mothers she interviewed “snorted,” “scoffed” or “parroted” what others said. They dismissed their futures with an “airy I’ll think about it tomorrow” a la Scarlett O’Hara. “Infantilized by dependency,” SAHMs made “childish decisions” and were “willfully obtuse Pollyannas who insist that mommy-track employees are as valuable as full-time careerists.” They had a “lack of commitment” and “erratic nature” when it came to employment. She quoted Simone de Beauvoir, who called women parasites in 1949. While Bennetts admitted parasites was a harsh word, she said, well, if the shoe fits, wear it. (Shrug.)

About wealthy SAHMs, who often employed nannies and housekeepers, she said,

These women may not be working for pay, but their tennis lessons, hair and manicure appointments, shopping dates, volunteer commitments, and social engagements frequently keep them out of the house for longer hours than many of the working mothers I know.

Others were “super-fit stay-at-home moms who spend a good part of their day in the gym.” She described one SAHM “who most closely approximates the Stepford ideal” as “preternaturally perky.”

She said she was baffled by “women’s complicity” in their own oppression and said,

what all too many mothers are demonstrating for their children is that woman is the nigger of the world, as John Lennon and Yoko Ono put it so memorably in a song lyric in 1972.

Just the facts. (Shrug.)

Bennetts criticizes “the media” for not telling the whole story to women, which is an amusing indictment, considering that she employs the same half-a-story methods. In a television interview with Deborah Roberts on ABC (which, Roberts pointed out, is owned by Disney, as is Hyperion, Bennetts’ publisher), Roberts said some of Bennetts’ statistics “frankly shocked me,” and she cited, “40 percent of women say they would love to go back to the gender roles of the ’50s.”

Hold up. It seems Roberts (or ABC or Hyperion or Disney) was no more interested in checking facts than Bennetts was. Roberts did not qualify the “40 percent.” The way she said it sounded like she was talking about 40 percent of all American women. Is that correct? Let’s see.

Bennetts used flimsy, outdated sources to bolster her claim that far too many American women are leaving the workplace in droves (or forgoing it altogether) for a return to an idealized version of the 1950s motherhood. Many “facts” come from secondhand sources through interviews, articles or informal surveys that, statistically speaking, are irrelevant.

For example, she said in the text (and this is one of Roberts’ “shocking” statistics),

A recent poll cited by Psychology Today found that 40 percent of today’s women would actually prefer a return to the gender roles of the 1950s.

Who are today’s women? Every woman in the United States? A million women? A thousand? Umm, no. Today’s women (at least “the 40 percent” of them) are about 200 (give or take) women who were surveyed 10 years ago.

The “recent” poll cited in the January/February 2006 issue of Psychology Today was conducted in 1997 by The Washington Post-Kaiser Foundation-Harvard University by randomly calling 1,008 adults and asking, among other questions,

Considering everything, do you think it would be better or worse for the country if men and women went back to the traditional roles they had in the 1950s, or don’t you think it would make a difference?

Forty-two percent of the women polled said it would be better. Let’s say half of the adults were women, which would be 504 of various ages and backgrounds (the poll didn’t break down demographics or gender, whether they were single or married, parents, grandparents or childless, employed, unemployed or retired … you get the picture). Take that times 42 percent, and we have about 200 women saying it would be better for the country to return to the traditional roles of the 1950s.

So, no, it is not correct for Roberts to assume that Bennetts’ “shocking” statistics speak for all American women. The statistics apply to only about 200 women.

Does that say these 200 women wanted to be June Cleaver? No. Does it say they were June Cleaver in the 1950s and in 1997 were barely scraping by on a couple hundred bucks a month in a nursing home? No. Does it say they were Generation Xers who grew up as latchkey kids and didn’t want their children to grow up that way? Nope, it doesn’t say that either. All it says is that on that particular day about 200 women thought, for whatever reasons, the country would be better with traditional roles from the 1950s.

Even more interesting (and this was not included in Bennetts’ book) is the next question, which asked if it would be better or worse if respondents themselves went back to traditional roles of the 1950s. Only 27 percent of the married women said it would be better.

A similar survey by the same group, conducted days earlier, randomly called 804 adults and found that 80 percent of both men and women thought changes with families, the workplace and society made things harder for parents to raise children, and up to 71 percent of women felt discriminated against in the workplace. This still isn’t a representative sample, even if it does balance the picture a bit.

Citing an article that cites a study (3,020 parents surveyed in 2003 by Reach Advisors), she said that “twice as many Gen-X mothers as boomer mothers spent more than 12 hours a day ‘attending to child-rearing and household responsibilities.'” Twice as many of what number? Was it 200 Gen-Xers and 100 boomers? Or 2,000 and 1,000? What exactly does that information mean?

And in 2001, when Harvard Business School Professor Myra Hartsurveyed female Harvard MBAs from the classes of 1981, 1986, and 1991, she found that only 38 percent of those with children were working full time.

Thirty-eight percent of what number? The 50 alumnae who attended Hart’s first “Charting Your Course” program in May 2000? If so, that would be 19, if all 50 were mothers. Or could it be the 100 or so who attended reunions and completed surveys? Even if all 100 were mothers, that’s 38 alumnae. The number of women surveyed should be specified.

Bennetts cited another article that cited another study (from 1994):

57 percent of mothers spent at least a year at home caring for their infant children in the first decade after graduation.

Even though it mentions this is from a survey of the Stanford University class of 1981, it sounded (as in the Psychology Today poll) as if she were talking about more than half of all American women. Nope. Just how many women are we talking about? Ten? Twenty? A hundred? A thousand? In Cream of the Crop: The Impact of Elite Education in the Decade After College, Herant Katchadourian and John Boli (BasicBooks/HarperCollins, 1994) wrote about a study that consisted of an extensive questionnaire survey of 224 graduates from the Stanford class of 1981 and intensive interviews with 100 members of that group. About one-third, or 81, were parents. The study did not break down participants by gender, so if I guess that half are women, that means 40 women were mothers. Take that times the 57 percent quote from the article cited in the book, and that’s 23 mothers “who spent at least a year at home caring for their infant children.”

The entire quote from the book is:

57 percent of mothers in our sample spent at least a year at home caring for their infant children, but only 4 percent of fathers did likewise. Most educational elite women do not want to interrupt their careers for long. Mothers did not usually stay home with their children for more than a year, and most of the 43 percent who stayed home less than a year were off the job for six months or less. Only one out of four [read: 6 mothers] have stayed home three or more years, including one who has been a homemaker since the first year after graduation. Thus far, at any rate, these long-term, full-time homemakers are exceptional, though perhaps more women will adopt that role in the next few years as they have more children or as more of them become first-time mothers.

Even Bennetts’ sources contradict each other (though she explained that in her source notes, not the text of the book). Another Stanford survey (from 1990) found that 12 percent of female graduates from the class of 1981 were full-time homemakers. Something didn’t match up. Either the 57 percent didn’t consider themselves homemakers, or the studies asked different questions, or maybe something dramatic happened in the four years that separated the two studies.

Or … here’s a thought. Maybe the 57 percent were taking “maternity leaves” they could have gotten if they lived in just about any other western industrialized country but, whoops, couldn’t get in the United States. Even the U.S. Census Bureau can add it up:

The 2000 participation [in the labor force] level of 55 percent was the first statistically significant decline since 1976 and its level was not different from 2002 (also 55 percent). Changes in the labor force participation of women with infants could signal changes in the need for child care, in child rearing practices, in future childbearing and birth spacing patterns, and in the demand for employer-sponsored maternity leave benefits.

Quoting Hirshman, who performed a “study” of women with wedding announcements in The New York Times in 1996,

Although all were college graduates with budding careers, 85 percent had stopped working full time within eight years.

Eighty-five percent. That’s a big number. How many women is that exactly? What Bennetts did not say was that Hirshman contacted 41 women. That means that 33 women were enough to get Hirshman to pound out a manifesto and for Bennetts to drive another nail into the “feminine mistake” coffin. Near the end of the book, though, she took Hirshman to task for giving impractical, flippant advice, some of which she called “facetious at best … destructive at worst.” She gets points for that, but she needs to put her own advice under the same microscope.

Bennetts said in the book’s prologue,

In the history of the world, no females have ever enjoyed a greater range of opportunities than do American women today. Most of the barriers to realizing those possibilities are self-imposed — the products of an anachronistic myth that encourages female dependency while obscuring its price.

Wow. The entire history of the world. What facts did she use to back up this claim?

Maybe she considered the fact that:

  • American women get the same amount of paid maternity leave as women do in Lesotho, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland: zero.
  • Same for American men and paternity leave: zero.
  • It’s legal in most states for employers to discriminate against American mothers.
  • While illegal, American women deal with pregnancy discrimination every day.
  • At least 76 countries protect the right of mothers to breastfeed at work, but the United States does not.
  • The United States is tied with Ecuador and Suriname for 39th place regarding enrollment in early childhood careand education for 3- to 5-year-olds, that almost all European countries perform better and a range of developing and transitioning countries had higher enrollment rates than the United States, despite being poorer.
  • Employer-sponsored childcare in the United States is available to only one in eight employees.
  • The only way for American women to get guaranteed affordable, high-quality child care is to join the military.
  • At least 96 countries require employers to provide paid annual leave, but the United States does not.
  • At least 84 countries have a maximum length workweek, but the United States — whose workweek length was second only to Japan’s hours among industrialized countries — does not.
  • At least 34 countries guarantee discretionary leave from work — Greece and Switzerland offer paid leave specifically for children’s educational needs — but the United States does not.
  • At least 37 countries guarantee leave from work for sick children, but the United States does not.
  • At least 139 countries provide paid sick leave to employees, but the United States does not.
  • Women still earn less than men do, and mothers earn less than anyone.

Maybe she considered these facts. Or … maybe not. What with all those self-imposed barriers American women place on their own roads to success — like identifying with Cinderella, damsels in distress and the hooker in Pretty Woman (yeah, she really said that) — those other facts just get in the way. Instead of asking, “What’s wrong with the workplace?” she asks, “What’s wrong with women?”

Et tu, Leslie?

[Note: I found a 2007 updated version of The Work, Family, and Equity Index that I used for much of the abive information. Only three newspapers ran articles in 2004 about the first report. Two ran articles in 2006. Four ran articles in 2007 about the latest report, while one international newspaper and two Canadian newspapers did. None was The New York Times or The Washington Post, which would rather run articles by and about Hirshman, Bennetts and/or the “mommy wars.” Compare 12 articles over three years about a report that discusses “what’s wrong with the workplace” with about 80 newspapers that have run articles about The Feminine Mistake in just a couple of months. By the way, the 2004 report highlighted the 4th Annual Invitational Journalism-Work/Family Conference in Boston in 2005. If it was important enough to hold an entire conference about, why the virtual silence in the media? Speaking of silence, Miriam Peskowitz and The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother? (Seal Press, 2005) was mentioned in about 20 articles and one — ONE — review. Could that be because it has the word truth in the title?]

I don’t think Leslie Bennetts is a cowbird. Nor am I defensive about what she says. She just needs to be accountable for what she reports. “I’m just a reporter” is a cop-out. If you say you’re a reporter, act like one. If you want to report “just the facts,” then get the facts straight. And, for crying out loud, pay a good editor to clean up the condescension and snark.

Posted by Becky @ 4:01 pm  

11 Responses to “Books: The Feminine Mistake by Leslie Bennetts”

  1. PunditMom Says:

    I raise my glass to you — your last paragraph reall sums it all up for me.

  2. Kathy Says:

    Great job critiquing that book. Your job on ferrating out errors in reporting “facts” is superb. Keep writing and I hope your readers are passing on your blog to all their friends.

  3. Deep Muck Big Rake » What I’ve read Says:

    […] * […]

  4. Veronica Mitchell Says:

    My views on her book are very similar. Thank you for writing this and quoting so expansively and accurately.

  5. Link Round-up « Toddled Dredge Says:

    […] Leslie Bennetts – Becky wrote the most careful analysis of the book here (it’s how I found her blog in the first place). On the humorous side, AlphaDogMa wrote a […]

  6. Mary-LUE Says:

    Excellent job. I have not read the book. I did read one article online and Bennetts does communicate exactly what you said: “It’s my way or the highway.”

  7. Thea Says:

    What an excellent post! I enjoyed the entire thing, and think you made several strong points. Thanks for breaking the book down–I haven’t read the book but have read an article by Bennetts as well as several other blog responses. It’s a fascinating topic, and your take is the most articulate and convincing that I’ve read so far.

  8. Deep Muck Big Rake » Revisiting Leslie Bennetts and The Feminine Mistake Says:

    […] won’t comment on the article. I’ll just send you to my review of The Feminine Mistake. I think that covers […]

  9. Deep Muck Big Rake » Leslie Bennetts stars in ‘Dude, Where’s My Car?’ Says:

    […] What’s her point? When she writes about everyday, ordinary American women for whom things go wrong, they’re stupid — willfully obtuse parasites who demonstrate for their children that woman is the n***** of the world. […]

  10. Deep Muck Big Rake » Books: No Excuses Says:

    […] posts Books: The Feminine Mistake by Leslie Bennetts Revisiting Leslie Bennetts and The Feminine Mistake Leslie Bennetts stars in ‘Dude, […]

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