Book Review: The Feminine Mistake (2007)


Boy, this one was a definite thinker. After years and years of slogging away at corporate jobs, secretly waiting for the day when I could chuck it all and just stay home and write full-time, I’ve now been given fair warning by journalist Leslie Bennetts in her new book, The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?

Bennetts, a wife and mother of two in addition to being a contributing writer to Vanity Fair and a former reporter at the New York Times, argues that women who opt out of the workforce and retreat to the home as full-time moms are not only wasting their potential, they’re also doing themselves a grave disservice by voluntarily surrendering their independence and financial clout to their husbands and children. She cites reams of studies and statistics that back up her claim that women shoot themselves in the foot when they give up paid work and subsume their identities with that of their spouse and children, and includes tons of anecdotal evidence of literally dozens and dozens of women (mostly white-collar, upper-income professional women in prestigious occupations, natch) who watched their fairy-tale fall apart when their husbands died/became disabled/was suddenly unemployed/left them. Bennetts hinges her argument on the very sensible admonition that if a woman really cares about her children, she would stay in the workforce and thereby give the kiddies the additional safety net of her income and benefits. Staying home and being there when the 4th tooth falls out is “nice,” as Bennetts puts it, but isn’t it more responsible to be able to provide a home, a good education, and food on the table for them in the event that the father isn’t able to do so anymore, for whatever reason?

Bennetts takes a very long time to make her point — it’s a fairly longish and comprehensive book, and she tends to hammer home the salient points of her thesis more times than she really needed to — but perhaps that’s part of the appeal of this very well-written, well-researched book. She’s obviously sick and tired of the media’s insistence on pursuing the so-called Mommy Wars and their elevation of stay-at-home mothers to near-sainthood, all at the expense of the millions of working mothers who manage to juggle the demands of the workplace and their family without whining about it. (My mom, mom-in-law, sister-in-law, and numerous cousins are excellent case studies of the latter.) She makes the very good point that few studies — if any — have ever shown that children are irreparably harmed by their mothers working full-time and warns that stay-at-home motherhood (which only takes up a fraction of one’s entire adult life) can do all kinds of psychological and financial damage to the woman herself.

I’m now beginning to question my decision to stay at home to pursue my novel-writing full-time. Although B. is a fantastic, supportive husband and I’m the one who handles all the finances in our little family, even he agrees that having only one steady household income may not be the best idea in this day and age. I and my 2 brothers were raised by a working mother, and lemme tell ya, the fact that she wasn’t home all day baking cookies and cleaning up after our s*** as we were growing up is something we’re all probably grateful for. I can’t imagine living your life through and for your children, to the extent that the only adult conversations you end up having are with the grocery store clerk and maybe the postman. That would drive me insane, and I’m sure it would have my mother’s as well. We all grew up fairly self-sufficient and now are relatively successful, having gone through college (the older brother is an attorney, while the younger is a computer administrator) and are now married.

I’ve met stay-at-home moms who could talk of nothing but their children, which may be interesting for about ten minutes, but after that…Yawn. One stay-at-home mom I know brings her baby son to every party/dinner date we attend and then spends the entire evening either talking about him or to him, which forces the rest of us to dumb down our own conversations. The odd thing is that I’ve heard that the kid is in day care most of the day, and her husband picks him up on the way from work. (Why stay at home then?)

Now, Bennetts tries hard not to sound condescending in her book, but she does fail more than once, I’m afraid. Stay-at-home moms do not fare well in her analysis, as they come across as being shrill, whiny and self-righteous. I have to admit, Bennetts isn’t entirely wrong on that front; I can’t blame her for sounding defensive. I’ve known a few stay-at-home moms who justify their status by sniping at the choices that professional women make, subtly questioning the latter’s commitment to her family. Again, as someone surrounded by working women (most of whom are not in high-status, six-figure professions), I’ve never doubted for a moment their abiding love for their families. I understand that stay-at-homes may feel the need to defend their own decision by making critical judgments about those who made different choices, but at what cost to them, as it obviously doesn’t give them the opportunity to really think critically and objectively about all the sacrifices they’re making?

I highly, highly recommend this book to any and all women who are facing the dilemma of modern motherhood. Young women in particular who are just getting out of college and entering the workforce will especially benefit from its wise advice and the cautionary tales Bennetts offers up by the dozens.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Feminine Mistake (2007)

  1. Does she mention a compromise between the two? I’d like to change my work arrangement until my (currently non-existant) kids are in school, but I want to either work part-time or work from home. I don’t think I could stay at home and just be “mom” because I need the adult interaction.If she does think the corporate world is the only way to go, I better not read her book. I have no intention of spending my life in an office.

  2. Hi, <>brown-eyed grrl<>! She does mention the possibility of working part-time while raising kids. I think her main point is that one must never completely disengage from the world of professional work in order to ensure your financial and professional growth, not to mention your mental sanity. I think she would prefer that women stay in the workforce full-time (the idea of “full-time stay-at-home motherhood” is a purely post-Industrial Age phenomenon after all; historically women have always worked, and mankind didn’t collapse because of it), but anything that will ensure that women have an income of their own and that will allow them to use their intellectual capacities to their fullest is preferable to a complete retreat into the cozy but isolated realm of the home.She does focus much of her interviews and anecdotes on women in corporate positions, but I think that has more to do with the company she keeps, shall we say. She obviously knows a lot of executive women, and quite frankly a lot of the media stories about women who “opt out” come from the white-collar workplace, but she herself isn’t a “traditional” corporate drone. A journalist her entire professional career (and now a writer working from home), she herself pursued her dream to work as a writer. She mentions in the last chapter that women must pursue work that they love whether it’s leading a Fortune 500 company or being a painter. The idea is that we fulfill our potential, regardless of what that may be.I hope you read the book! It can be a little tedious at times (as I said, she tends to repeat herself), but as someone who doesn’t have any children (yet), I still found it a fascinating read and a great answer to the onslaught of pro-stay-at-home-motherhood books that have come onto the scene of late.Cheers,Marjorie

  3. Hmm…think I’ll have to pick up a copy. I do think the pro-stay-at-home-mother books miss the flipside that you’re basically putting all of your eggs in one basket. I have a friend who is a stay-at-home mom. She got her degree, but she’s never held a professional job, and she’s in her early 30s now. It seems like a great life, but in her situation I’d be too worried that something might happen to my husband. If she had to return to the workforce, what would she do? Her only long-term job was as a bartender. Even with a degree, if you have no real work history, it has to be difficult to find a good job.

  4. Dear <>brown-eyed grrl<>, exactly! Those are actually pretty much Bennetts’ words on the subject: <>Don’t put your eggs in one basket.<> It doesn’t really matter if a crystal ball told you definitively that your husband will never leave you or cheat on you. Many, many other things can happen. He could die, become disabled, or lose his job. In most states, unemployment insurance is time- and amount-limited. Even insurance may not cover everything, and how many people purchase enough life insurance to ensure that his/her survivors will be able to take care of themselves for a long period of time? There’s disability insurance, but even that’s often only a <>percentage<> of a person’s income. (My husband, for example, has LTD insurance through his company that will provide 70% of his income in case of a disability.)The point is that there are too many variables for a woman to gamble her whole life on another person, no matter how faithful he may be. Ack. I’m just repeating myself. 😉 Ya, let me know if you like the book. There’s another one called <>Get to Work<>, which Bennetts refers to in her own book, but it’s shorter and I gather (from reviews) a little more strident. Still, it’s great to hear alternatives to the SAHM-rah-rah trend.I once hired a woman with a degree in social work (or was it psychology?) to serve as a receptionist/administrative assistant. She got her degree in the early 1980s, though, but had never held a paying professional job. Instead, she became a SAHM after marrying a minister to raise their children. Fast forward about 15 years later, and she was on the market looking for work. Her husband had a new pastor position that had either too-expensive health insurance or none at all. She had no computer skills at all (had never used MS Word) and didn’t’ even know how to work a fax machine. I gave her the job, though, because she had great people skills and seemed to be a quick study. After six weeks I had to let her go. Training her to do the simplest things (opening a doc on Word, for example) took too much time out of my workday, and I’m not much of a hands-on manager. If you read the book, you’ll find that even women with high-level skills who’ve been out of the workforce for even just a year or two will find it hard to jump back into the same level position they had before they left.Cheers,Marjorie

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