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The Feminine Mistake

Posted: 03/31/07 07:45 PM ET

Everyone knows that authors have to be prepared for negative reviews. What I didn't anticipate was an avalanche of blistering attacks by women who hadn't read my book but couldn't wait to condemn it. Their fury says a great deal about the current debate over women's choices -- all of it alarming.

I wrote The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? because the typical reporting on the job-versus-family issue was so biased and incomplete. The media gave lots of coverage to women who quit the labor force to become full-time mothers, but they treated this decision as if it were simply a lifestyle choice. They never seemed to mention the risks of economic dependency -- or the myriad benefits of work. As a result, women were being lulled into a dangerous sense of complacency about relinquishing their financial autonomy. Why wasn't anyone telling the truth about how much they were sacrificing -- or what the consequences could be?

When I researched the subject myself, my findings made it all too clear how false that sense of security really is. Over time, most stay-at-home wives are likely to face major hardships as a result of divorce, widowhood, a spouse's unemployment or illness, or any number of other challenges. Women who abandon their careers and become financially dependent on their husbands often look back on that decision as the biggest mistake of their lives -- even women in stable, enduring marriages. I interviewed women all over the country, of every age, socio-economic level and background, but many used the exact same words to ask an angry question: "Why didn't anybody tell me what a mistake this was?"

My goal in writing The Feminine Mistake was to provide women with what I saw as one-stop-shopping that would help close this information gap. My goal was to gather into a single neat package all the financial, legal, sociological, psychological, medical, labor-force, child-rearing and other information necessary for them to protect themselves. My reporting revealed that the bad news is just as ominous as I'd feared; so many women are unaware of practical realities that range from crucial changes in the divorce laws to the difficulties of reentering the work force and the penalties they pay for taking a time-out. I devoted two chapters to financial information alone.

But the good news is just as dramatic -- and equally neglected in much of the current debate. Work confers enormous benefits in addition to a paycheck. Despite the undeniable challenges of the juggling act, working women tend to be happier and even healthier than stay-at-home moms, in ways that have been documented by a broad range of surprising medical, psychological and social science data. Their incomes give them power in their marriages and options in the larger world, not to mention opportunities that benefit their families. Women are socialized not to brag, but it's very gratifying to make money, be successful, and get recognition for your work. Like most men, many working women wouldn't even consider giving up such rewards.

As for the children's welfare, sociologists have spent decades comparing the kids of working moms with those of full-time homemakers, consistently failing to prove that the latter do better. "The research on the impact of working mothers on kids shows that there isn't any," reported sociologist Pamela Stone. And when the kids grow up, the futures of working mothers are usually brighter than those of the homemakers, who often find themselves financially stranded and bereft of viable opportunities for employment.

And yet millions of women continue to be misled by the fairy-tale version of life, in which Prince Charming comes along and takes care of you forever. Our culture programs women to believe that they can depend on a man to support them -- the classic feminine mistake -- and fails to explain how often that alluring promise is betrayed, whether by a change of heart or a heartless fate.

Naively, I assumed that once women were offered more accurate information, they would be eager to get it. After all, women aren't stupid; it's true that they've been deserting the labor force in record numbers, but surely the problem was just that unfortunate information gap. Wouldn't they want to protect their own interests by educating themselves about the dangers that lie ahead -- and to plan accordingly?

The first warning that I had misjudged the situation popped up on my computer screen as a Google alert, months before my book was published. I was thrilled to see that bloggers were already talking about The Feminine Mistake -- until I saw what they were saying. The first woman to weigh in hadn't actually read it, but she was nonetheless certain that it would serve as "an indictment on my whole life as I currently live it." She held equally firm views about the content: "I'm sure there will be pages that make me shriek in anger on all sides of the issues Bennetts raises." At least she admitted that she might be bringing some personal baggage into her critique: "Am I bothered because I have a sneaking decision (I think she meant suspicion) that I've just been called a 'mistake'?...Sadly, I think I know."

And then the final jab: "that little jealousy thing where I'm secretly hoping this author is interviewed by Katie Couric on the nightly news with lipstick on her teeth."

Equally encouraging was the woman who, after being introduced to me at a cocktail party, made a horrible face when the hostess told her about The Feminine Mistake. "I don't think I want to read it," she said, pursing her lips as if she'd just sucked a lemon. "The last thing I need is a whole book telling me why I should feel even more guilty about my life than I already do."

These days women are so defensive about their choices that many seem to have closed their minds entirely. Unfortunately this will not serve our best interests, but apparently it's preferable to facing the facts. "The Latest Polemic Against Stay-At-Home Moms!" was the headline on one recent essay about The Feminine Mistake. If this were accurate, I wouldn't mind someone complaining about it, but my book is not a polemic; it's a painstakingly reported collection of information and interviews. If you want to disagree with my conclusions, you need to address the facts on which they're based rather than acting as if these were simply matters of opinion. They're not.

But you can't tell that to the stay-at-home brigade, who are enraged that I wrote it at all. When Glamour published a brief essay adapted from the book, the magazine was inundated with furious letters denouncing me. "I am so insulted by Leslie Bennetts!" and "I am so offended by Leslie Bennetts!" were typical openers. Of course, these women hadn't read the book either, but they weren't about to let the evidence get in the way of their pre-conceived biases.

It shouldn't be news that educating ourselves can help us to make smarter choices. You wouldn't buy a car without doing some comparison shopping and researching the advantages of different options, would you? So why would you make a major life choice that could jeopardize your future without informing yourself about the risks -- and the alternatives?

And yet many stay-at-home mothers seem unwilling to do so. In my interviews, most said they didn't want to think about the problems they might encounter in the future, let alone to do any contingency planning. When I asked about the dangers of economic dependency, they bristled and insisted that bad things would never happen to them, only to other people.

Wondering whether my findings were representative, I interviewed social scientists who have studied opt-out moms, and discovered that they had found the same thing: when most women quit their jobs, the long-term risks of economic dependency aren't even on their radar screens.

"None of them talked about 'What if I end up divorced?'" reported Louise Roth, a sociologist at the University of Arizona. "They never mentioned other risk factors like death or illness or unemployment."

Among full-time homemakers, this overdeveloped capacity for denial is often accompanied by a highly combative sense of indignation about views that challenge their own. In recent years, stay-at-home moms have gone on the offensive, demanding that their choices be respected and attacking those who question them. Many people have thus been intimidated into silence -- a phenomenon I encountered with increasing frequency over the last few months. Publications whose readership includes a high proportion of working women have been very enthusiastic about covering my book. But other publications catering primarily to stay-at-home mothers are terrified of offending them, and any coverage has to be tailored to accommodate their sensitivities, real or imagined. "We don't want to upset the stay-at-home mommies," more than one editor told me in a patronizing tone of voice that suggested the conspiratorial whisper of adults who are trying not to wake the cranky children.

The same thing is happening with organizations that are interested in speaking engagements. Groups of professional women are eager to hear what I have to say, but those whose membership includes many stay-at-home mothers are afraid to risk their wrath by offering potentially upsetting information. Institutions that rely on the volunteer efforts of stay-at-home moms are particularly leery of presenting any program that might challenge their assumptions and rouse their ire.

As a result, the information contained in my book is being disseminated widely among working women, but stay-at-home wives -- the ones most at risk, and therefore the ones I most wanted to reach with my findings -- are being insulated from the truth by well-meaning decision-makers who are, in my opinion, infantilizing them. Yes, it's true that women who don't work are often so defensive about their choice that they've helped to create this regrettable climate. But do they really want to be treated like children who must be shielded from distressing information?

It's as if the adult world of work and public affairs regards these self-appointed CHO's ("chief household officers," in the self-congratulatory parlance of one magazine aimed at that constituency) as somewhat dimwitted second-class citizens who aren't really up to the task of dealing with reality, which has to be left to the grown-ups. And I'm not just talking about the mommy wars; if anything, this kind of condescension about stay-at-home moms is more apparent among men than among working women.

Thus buffered from harsh realities, stay-at-home mothers can often preserve their illusions for quite a while. But over the long run, neither willful obliviousness nor a double standard that treats them like second-class citizens will save these women from the all-too-real problems I have documented in my book. The facts don't change just because you refuse to look at them.

I hope I'm wrong about this. Maybe the stay-at-home moms will devour the information in The Feminine Mistake and debate my findings in their book clubs. Maybe some of them will even reconsider their choices and start making more sensible plans for the future than relying on the blithe assumption that there will always be an obliging husband around to support them.

But judging by the opening salvos, I wouldn't bet the whole suburban Colonial on it.