Last year, in response to the increasing numbers of women opting out of the workforce, author Linda Hirshman took to the morning shows proclaiming women demean themselves by becoming fulltime mothers. No matter how much love goes into the labor of cleaning the dishes and changing the diapers, it is beneath their dignity, she insisted.
For the most part, the stay-at-home crowd yawned, flipped the channels and cheerfully returned to the debasing business of shuttling the kids from school to soccer practice. However, while the latest feminist general to take the field in the Mommy Wars has the same end in mind—the return of all women to fulltime work—her battle plan seems far more likely to yield results. Rather than shaming women back into the office, she attempts to scare them into it.
In her new book, The Feminine Mistake, Vanity Fair writer Leslie Bennetts charges that women who step-back from working are taking an extreme economic risk. Book critics and editorialists at major papers and women’s magazines have tended to agree. They may not all appreciate her tone, but they still applaud Bennetts for issuing a “wake-up call” to wives who depend on their men to provide for the family.
Yet if off-ramping is the dangerous “high-stakes gamble” Bennetts and her supporters claim, why are so many smart, rational women laying their money and their futures on the table? Perhaps because even a cursory look at hard data (rather than the collection of sad stories Bennetts has put forth) indicates that, statistically, there is very little to fear from making motherhood a career choice. Indeed, having one partner out of the workforce can actually provide protection against financial ruin.
According to work-first feminists, the scariest bogeyman looming over women who stay home is divorce. Men leave their wives high and dry all the time, she insists. In fact, they don’t. Women initiate about two-thirds of divorces, so the idea that droves of middleclass men are blindsiding their spouses with abandonment is almost as much a fantasy as Prince Charming once was.
Of course, that still leaves the third who will not initiate their divorces, but research demonstrates that the women Bennetts fears for most are the least likely to be a part of that group. Among wives with at least a bachelors degree (the demographic that stands to lose the most career ground by stepping back from the workforce) only 16 percent will divorce within ten years. Given that 60 percent of all divorces occur within that time frame, educated opt-out moms are playing very good odds.
Megan Basham is the author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide To Having It All
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