Another Layer of Guilt for Women

Posted: Apr 19, 2007 12:01 AM

It's a cliché that other women are a woman's worst enemies. It's also a cliché that female bosses are more hard-nosed than male ones. Everybody also knows that women feel guilty whenever anything goes wrong; they tend to think problems are their fault. Now we have another book written by a woman for women telling us that we are making mistakes in our life choices and giving up too much. The basic message of a new book, The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?, by Leslie Bennetts, is that women need to be selfish by avoiding economic dependency and self-centered in recognizing that their worth is largely dependent upon their workforce identity.

According to Bennetts, the biggest mistake that a woman can make is to think that a "man will support you;" there are too many "alluring promises" that are betrayed and "heartless fate" brings divorce, illness, disabling injuries, death, unemployment and a myriad of other events that can leave women in desperate circumstances and/or feeling underappreciated. Bennetts claims that even women in stable, enduring marriages end up viewing their decision to drop out of a career as the "biggest mistake of their lives."

The most disturbing thing about Bennetts' book is her disdain for women who choose to be stay-at-home moms or to drop off the career fast track. The cynicism toward men and marriage is palpable. In an interview with the Web site Huffington Post, the author referred to stay-at-home moms as being "0misled by the fairy-tale version of life, in which Prince Charming comes along and takes care of you forever." Bennetts wrote that the adult world patronizes stay-at-home moms and treats them with condescension as "dimwitted second-class citizens" that "can't deal with reality." Bennetts argues, "The facts don't change just because you refuse to look at them." She wrote her book to wake women up to the reality that there won't "always be an obliging husband around to support them." Joan Walsh praised the book on for reminding women that "marriage usually isn't a lifelong paycheck."

Further, says Walsh, the Mistake book is actually written for a small demographic of women –– less than 10 percent –– who are affluent enough to have the option of stepping off the "fast track." Walsh described them as "privileged women" who "enjoy their suburban Colonial homes" and "lord it over the rest of us." Walsh sneers that stay-at-home moms "pretend that raising children is a lifelong endeavor (it isn't) that makes you better than other women (it doesn't)."

The book obviously is built on the author's personal experiences; she described her grandmother's tragic life after her grandfather left his wife for a mistress that he later married. The grandmother ended up depending on her sisters' husbands for survival. Bennetts' mother gave up an acting career for husband and family, but when the mother asked her husband to take over financial support of her mother, he refused. Afterwards, the mother found a job and made success in her profession a top priority. For Bennetts, these stories must have reinforced all those childhood impressions of feminine mistakes. Bennetts' mother gave her a copy of Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique and told her, "Read this." She claims that the book changed her life from that point forward.

Clearly Bennetts' goal in writing her book seems to be to provide all possible evidence about the difficulties and penalties that women face when they leave a career to stay at home. She views women as ill-informed about practical realities. She also marshals arguments to try to convince women that work is more than a paycheck; she documents ways that women are healthier and happier when they have the gratification of earning money and the status of a professional position. She totally ignores the rewards of marriage and motherhood.

Bennetts warns women against dropping out of the workforce –– not even to scale back to be home when their children are infants. She recounts story after story of women who did just that and ended up in dire financial circumstances. In fact, the author turns quite shrill; she ends up picturing men as uniformly unreliable jerks. She also seems determined that everyone will be convinced that her way is best. She ignores the fact that women can have different values and different perspectives. As far as she is concerned, there is only one way for a woman, the Bennetts way. Anyone who ignores or dismisses financial concerns when considering love and marriage is stupid in Bennetts' view. Anyone whose top priorities are not career and financial security is even more stupid.

As Bennetts points out the truth about what women sacrifice and the consequences that they might face, she leaves women feeling foolish and guilty about making their husband and children their priority. One woman reacted to the book by saying it is "an indictment of my whole life as I currently live it." Another said she "shrieked with anger at all sides of the issues of this book." Bennetts has no sympathy for such women; they "don't let evidence get in the way of their pre-conceived biases." The author has no understanding of women's self-doubt, nor does she realize that she adds weight to the burgeoning pile of books warning women about how they mess up their lives whatever choice they make.

Clearly the "mommy wars" are a long way from over. Books like Feminine Mistake just add fuel to the feud.