Any discussion of what women “should” do is fraught with sexism, classism, ageism and even “parent-ism.” It is impossible to examine women’s lives without wading through a complex web of judgments and opinion-riddled research. In “The Feminine Mistake,” Leslie Bennetts, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, attempts to educate (and terrify) women about the dangers of economic dependence.
Specifically, Bennetts decries reliance on a man’s financial support in an era when divorce, abandonment, death or illness can leave stay-at-home wives and mothers destitute. Bennetts is right that in this day and age of economic uncertainty it is plainly naive for a woman to expect that she will never have to support herself or manage her own finances. However, her argument is buried in self-righteousness, contradictions and woeful anecdotes of spousal abandonment and midlife poverty.
Bennetts regards her book as a successor to Betty Friedan’s revolutionary 1953 book “The Feminine Mystique,” and in many ways, Bennetts is equally activist, advocating an identity equally focused on career and family, accompanied by the recognition that success will not mean perfection.
Unfortunately, Bennetts also commits the same mistakes as her role model, utterly disregarding minorities, lesbians, women not from upper- or middle-class backgrounds, and those whose career options veer away from the author, publisher, lawyer, analyst track and more toward, well, anything else.
The result is that the wisest observations of “The Feminine Mistake” — that women should stay connected, informed and passionate about their industries if they opt to stay home with their children — are diluted by the attitude of condescension and contempt for women with differing priorities.
According to Bennetts, women underestimate the difficulty of re-entering the workforce after a year spent at home. Bennetts argues that eventually the kids will be grown (oh, and the husband will be vacationing with his new trophy wife), and the wives who used to be so fulfilled by bake sales and PTA fundraisers are left with no job skills, no income and no safety net with which to raise their children.
It’s a frightening (if obscenely simplistic) picture, but what Bennetts omits are those truly responsible for the destitution itself — these husbands who run out on their families and the ingrained sexism of male-dominated corporate higher-ups who value mothers less than single women who are, in turn, valued less than men.
However, Bennetts points out that women who intend to permanently sacrifice their entire career to immerse themselves in motherhood are less desirable employees than those intent on balancing work and home. What Bennetts barely challenges is what a nonissue this is for men — fathers aren’t under such constant scrutiny to provide full-time home care and to also be the breadwinners.
Bennetts’ strength lies in the quality of her journalistic research — not in the findings of her interviews, which she editorializes constantly, always choosing a word with loaded connotations over a neutral one — which is predominantly drawn from the work of female social scientists, psychiatrists, journalists and activists.
The bottom line is that women must be prepared to support themselves. Nothing exempts women from the responsibility of cultivating a personal (and professional) identity separate from wife and mother. Bennetts tries to emphasize that financial self-sufficiency trumps issues of gender, class, societal pressures and race, but reducing a multifaceted social dilemma to a monochromatic issue provides women with neither solutions nor empowerment.
“The Feminine Mistake” received 2 1/2 out of 4 stars.