Leslie Bennetts, her book, and what I have to say about it
It looks like Vanity Fair writer Leslie Bennetts -- following closely on the heels Judith Warner, Caitlin Flanagan and Leslie Morgan Steiner -- is the anointed author of this years "big" Mother's Day book. I'm sure I don't need to recap the premise of "The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?," but for those who've been in a coma for the last three weeks, Bennetts would like you to know that middle-class mothers who abandon their careers for stay-at-home motherhood are setting themselves up for a lifetime of deprivation and despair. I'm not going to say much else about Bennetts or her book at this time, because I haven't had time to read it -- and Bennetts has posted a string of searing commentaries questioning the intelligence of anyone who forms a negative opinion of her work based on the dozens of interviews, magazine articles, reviews and excerpts published in the last few weeks BUT DID NOT ACTUALLY READ HER BOOK. Bennetts is especially annoyed with the cadre of "mommy bloggers" who announced they have no intention of ever buying her book, let alone reading it, since it's the self-destructive and delusional behavior of the Blogging Baby set she wants to correct.
So, I will reserve my comments about Bennetts book until a later date. However, on April 25 the New York Times ran a culture story by Motoko Rich on the failure of mainstream "mommy books" to meet sale targets, which mentions that despite Bennetts' massive media tour, "The Feminine Mistake" has barely outsold Linda Hirshman's equally reviled "Get To Work" (which, by industry standards, has sales figures falling somewhere between "pathetic" and "dismal").
I am also not going to comment on Bennetts hot-headed reaction to Rich's article, except to say that it's not considered good form to attack journalists and newspaper editors for reporting that your book sales suck if it happens to be true. Well, perhaps I will add that although Bennetts defends her tirade by pointing out that her book has received "stellar" reviews, the notices I've read so far, including full reviews in Salon ("all books like these tend to come with a side order of smug"), USA Today ("At times, her campaign for financial autonomy is so shrill and unrelenting that it borders on a harangue"), the Washington Post ("doesn't provide a convincing answer to the question of who should watch the kids when their mothers work"), and the New Yorker ("barely considers the possibility that a woman might clear-sightedly find the rearing of her children the most rewarding work she can do"), were not entirely positive.
But, back to what I was saying. While Bennetts and book publishers are pushing the idea that mothers are too dumb to know what's good for them, my own guess is that the disappointing sales numbers for pricey hardcovers such as Hirshman's "Get To Work" and Flanagan's "To Hell With All That" are a reflection of publishers' serious miscalculation of what mothers want to read. Ann Crittenden's "The Price of Motherhood," an authoritative book which is widely admired by mother readers, devoted an entire chapter to the economic risks of stay-at-home motherhood in the event of divorce, but no reviewer ever accused Crittenden of being "smug" or "shrill." The fact that "The Price of Motherhood" was written to educate and inform, rather than as a self-help book, hints at the possibility that mothers have had their fill of self-appointed experts explaining why everything they do is wrong, and are not masochistic enough to subject themselves 300 pages of another woman's derision. And here's another tip to publishers: Try finding a few writers who do not live and work in the rarified environs of New York City or Washington, DC to write about what mothers do and why they do it.
One last thing: Every new book that has anything remotely to do with mothers leaving the workforce for full-time homemaking -- which is not happening, by the way, except in the minds of people who have written books about why it's such a bad idea -- is inevitably compared to Betty Friedan's second-wave blockbuster, "The Feminine Mystique." Sometimes the authors themselves -- Judith Warner and Linda Hirshman, for example -- deliberately invoke the comparison. But Friedan never argued that every college-educated housewife has a duty to embark on a high-demand professional career in an elite, male-dominated field, or that married mothers need to strive for financial independence -- or else. She simply thought women would be a lot happier if they stopped doing housework and found something more interesting and creative to do with their time, something that would contribute to public life.
Friedan was hypercritical of married women's complacency -- she did, after all, describe American suburbia circa 1960 as a "comfortable concentration camp" for middle-class housewives. But she also painstakingly documented the historical, political and cultural context of women's predicament -- "the problem that has no name" -- including rampant misogyny, systemic sex discrimination, mother-blame, the marketing of gender norms, the influence of media, and how dropping the atomic bomb prompted a generation of Americans to idealize the security and comfort of family life. It's also worth noting that "The Feminine Mystique" was more popular with the daughters of the women Friedan accused of avoiding self-actualization than with the desperate housewives of her own generation. Friedan believed women would be better off if they planned for a different kind of life. But she recognized the real problem was that women could not name the source of their discontent.
Judith Stadtman Tucker
Editor, The Mothers Movement Online