Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Are Women Always Wrong?

Adam and Eve

Author of "The Feminine Mistake" Leslie Bennetts writes in The Huffington Post:

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.

In the comment thread that follows, hcgorman asks:

Maybe it is the title?

You know hc, I had the exact same thought. And yes, I get that it's a play on "The Feminine Mystique." But maybe a lot of us are just tired of being told that no matter what we do, no matter what we choose, we're always wrong.

There is a lot to recommend this book on the substance. Women who give up gainful employment to raise a family risk a lot. I personally have known a number of women who derailed the career track to focus on childrearing, only to find that in a divorce their lack of earning power left them at a disadvantage in custody battles. Imagine devoting your life to your kids only to find that having done so means you could lose primary custody of them.

Bennetts goes on:

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.

What I find unfortunate in Bennetts's approach is not the pragmatism, but the hectoring tone and the conflation of financial remuneration with empowerment. Like many who have reacted to her book, I should disclose that I have not read it as yet. Perhaps having done so, I might feel differently, but nothing I've read so far, including her own words on Huffington Post, makes me optimistic. Nor does it make me want to read it. I can be insulted anywhere and I don't need to shell out $24.95 for the privilege.

Bennetts seems highly focused on women who left their careers because of rescue fantasies.

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.

I'm sure those modern-day Cindarellas are out there. I haven't met them.

There are many reasons that women choose to return to homemaking and childrearing. One is the continuing perception that it is better for their children. And in case it slips our minds, there seems no end to the reminders; like this one from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The government-funded, ongoing study of more than 1,000 children found that very young children who spent long hours in day care were more likely to become aggressive and defiant in school, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through sixth grade.

I heard that sound-bite today. It made me feel like I had deja vu. As did reading the more complete coverage, which points out that kids who have quality daycare have better verbal skills and no increase in behavioral problems. (So if you're going to put your kids in daycare, be sure and be wealthy). But here's the kicker:

While that fact is continually highlighted, it is important to note that 83 percent of the children in the study did not display these behaviors. In addition, this is not a scientific study, and there was no evaluation of how many stay-at-home children displayed the same tendencies. [emphasis added]

So why was this even released to the press? This ongoing study has been marred by controversy from the beginning. From a Los Angeles Times story of 2001:

A week after a high-profile study cast a negative light on child care, researchers--including the study's lead statistician--are sharply questioning whether their controversial work has been misrepresented.

As reported last week, the study showed that the more time preschoolers spend in child care, the more likely their teachers were to report behavior problems such as aggression and defiance in kindergarten.

But several academics involved in the study said that its conclusion was overstated and that other important findings never reached the public. In the aftermath, a rift has been exposed among the research team, and questions from other experts have caused the researchers to perform additional analysis before formally publishing their findings.

"I feel we have been extremely irresponsible, and I'm very sorry the results have been presented in this way," said Margaret Burchinal, the lead statistician on the study, funded by National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. "I'm afraid we have scared parents, especially since most parents in this country [have to work]."

Several of those involved in the project accuse Jay Belsky, a professor at the University of London and one of the lead researchers on the study, of downplaying other important information when he presented the findings at a news conference last week. They accuse him of having an anti-child-care agenda.

Belsky charged that his colleagues are "running from this data like a nuclear bomb went off" because they are committed to putting an approving stamp on child care.

The pattern at that time was the same as we are seeing play out now. An alarm about daycare increasing aggression and the caveats ignored by most news venues. Because, lets face it, the idea that working mothers are bad for kids is part of an established narrative. And when facts and narrative conflict, narrative wins. So many working mothers feel like the trade-offs may be a necessary evil, but an evil none-the-less.

A number of women have embraced the return to "traditional roles." Along comes Bennetts to tell those women, that -- guess what -- wrong again.

Stay-at-home mom Nello had the same reaction that the aforementioned hcgorman and I did. Bad title.

Interesting title, no?
That’s what I thought too. And that is why I read the article that has heretofore been given the award for “Article That Has Upset Nello The Most Since She Doesn’t Know When.”

And I quote:

“I think it’s time to tell women, especially young ones, the truth: The feminine mistake- building a grown-up life around the notion that someone will take care of you- is an outdated idea that could jeopardize your future.”. . .

Why am I upset?
Reason number one: Because I don’t like my life being referred to as a “mistake”.
Hell. Who does?

Reason number two: I wasn’t aware that I was “being taken care of”. I thought that my family was taking care of each.other.
But hey. I’m just a stupid Home Mom. What the hell do I know?

Reason number three: Because this Leslie Bennetts obviously hit one of my fragile nerves. Yeah. That’s right Leslie. I’m not afraid to admit that a part of me is afraid that you could be right. Maybe I did make a mistake...

So, yes, women tend to be a little sensitive to the whole, "you're wrong" thing. But, more importantly, Nello raises what I think is a crucial point. The idea that stay-at-home mothers just want to be taken care of is a canard. Families, whether single or double-income are interdependent units. The "traditional" family structure is at bottom a division of labor. The men worked outside the home. The women worked in it. But, particularly in a highly developed society like ours, work is not considered, well, work, unless it earns a wage and contributes to the GDP. One of the casualties of early feminism -- with its focus on freeing women from codified gender roles -- is an idea that NOW has embraced in more recent years: "Every Mother is a Working Mother."

This is not to say that the idea that money equals value is a trap only for women. I would love to take at face value Bennetts's assertion that working for a living imbues us with a sense of personal empowerment, but that's not been my experience. Too many women and men are living lives of quiet desperation as "wage slaves." I've personally known a number of women who ran back to home and hearth, because the promise of work as freeing and esteem building didn't pan out. What they found, when they snatched that brass ring, was that it turned their fingers green. They had babies and went home because it turned out to be the more fulfilling choice, after all. And wasn't personal fulfillment one of the major goals of the feminist movement?

To hear Bennetts tell it, stay-at-home mothers are not making proactive choices at all. They are passive and indolent.

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.

Gosh, Leslie, I can't imagine why you're getting such a negative reaction. You'd expect to be embraced when you tell a bunch who've women who thought their lives were very full and rewarding, that they're really being feckless.

There's quite an industry in criticizing women. Many of its voices are female and sound like the mothers and grandmothers who always seemed to be harder on female children than male ones. We're not accomplishing enough. We try to do too much. We're too sexual. We're not attractive enough. We should make our own choices. Our choices are wrong. On and on it goes.

From what I've read so far of Bennetts's work the warnings themselves are sound, like telling women not to walk the streets at night. The world is a far less safe place for women than for men on every level; physically, sexually, economically, emotionally. I guess I've just gotten a little tired of being treated like I'm a fool because no matter what I do I can't adequately protect myself from it.

Crossposted from The Blogging Curmudgeon.


Kelly said...

Great post.
Great points.
The more I read of what Leslie has to say, the more I KNOW she wrote such a horrifying, contreversial, and condecending book to make money. If she had tempered her message in any way... she would not be as talked about.