By DAVID BLUM
It must be nice for Leslie Bennetts to have the luxury to write a book as unnecessary as “The Feminine Mistake.” It’s a topic she chose, no doubt, from a list of ideas she nurtured in spare moments between raising her children and writing sycophantic celebrity profiles for Vanity Fair. Was it on the plane trip home from interviewing Jennifer Aniston at her Los Angeles mansion when she realized that full-time moms need jobs to be truly, emotionally fulfilled? Maybe the sight of the former “Friends” star mourning the loss of her multimillionaire husband– and discovering that even women as wondrous as Ms. Aniston faced complicated career-vs.-family decisions in their lives– led her to propose “The Feminine Mistake” as her response to women who crowed about the joys of full-time motherhood.
I won’t try to contend with the myriad mistakes Ms. Bennetts makes in her theories about women; I’ll leave that task to other women. Some female critics have already picked apart her notion that most American women have the freedom to choose their fate. Okay, maybe those who write for Condé Nast magazines do–and yes, I’m also alluding to Ms. Bennetts’s antagonist, New Yorker writer Caitlin Flanagan, who stays home with her kids, her babysitter, and her book contracts. But most women in America aren’t nearly as affluent as Ms. Bennetts or the women she writes about, and don’t have a choice about whether to work or stay at home. They lack the flexibility to earn a six-figure income from their living room, and to begin work midmorning, after they’ve made the bed and folded the laundry and dropped the kids at school. I kept waiting for Ms. Bennetts to acknowledge her spectacular good fortune, but the closest she came was acknowledging Graydon Carter and her agent at ICM.
It struck me as no coincidence that the cover illustration of “The Feminine Mistake” shows a tumbling house of cards. Aside from the element of cliché, it also speaks to the fragility of her argument. And nowhere does that become more evident than in the part of the book dealing with dads. The rest of her thesis might resonate with the occasional woman who needs a pat on the back for keeping her job after the kid comes along, but her theories about fatherhood patronize and misinform in ways that will offend all women who aren’t already looking for reasons to hate their husbands.
Ms. Bennetts’s basic thesis about men is that they’re good-for-nothing layabouts who escape true responsibility unless you shame them into service. “In my own experience,” she says, “husbands will get away with whatever you let them get away with when it comes to sharing housework.” She includes in these chapters her own husband, Jeremy, whom she gives credit for going grocery shopping and making the bed, and little else– and who prompts her to complain when her friends remark on his seeming helpfulness. “The sainted Jeremy may look like the Husband of the Year in comparison with a lot of other guys,” she writes, “but that just goes to show how low we set the bar for men in this society.” She goes on to make clear that Jeremy only “helps” (her quotation marks, not mine) because she “made it clear that I wasn’t going to be any husband’s unpaid servant … if we were going to raise children together, we had to share the work– or he could forget the whole deal.” Is that the kind of marital negotiation Ms. Bennetts advocates as the key to a happy life?
To keep the marriage on an equal footing, Ms. Bennetts recommends these techniques: “Bribery and punishment work; so do yelling and complaining. With husbands, tender blandishments are particularly useful.” But lest you feel the least bit sorry for Jeremy at the receiving end of all this manipulation, pity poor Leslie: She doesn’t even know why she’s having to do all this. “What I don’t understand,” she moans, “is why my insistence on a rough semblance of equality is unusual.” Who said it’s unusual? Women have been yelling at their husbands to do more housework for decades, maybe centuries. It’s not worth two chapters of this already simplistic look at marriage, feminism, and career.
Ms. Bennetts quotes an expert saying that “marriage has changed more in the last 30 years than in the previous 3,000.” But she knows it hasn’t changed nearly enough to make possible the scenario she envisions, at least not for the vast majority of Americans. In her perfect world, all husbands would somehow agree to stay home with their children, or at least take care of the drudgery and accommodate their wives’ desires to pursue a career.
But in our imperfect world, most men don’t, and won’t. Full-time fatherhood remains a Hollywood fantasy; it’s no coincidence that so many movies and series involve dads still learning the basics about connecting with their children. Virtually every character on “Lost” has an unresolved daddy issue about their father who disappeared, or didn’t care, or didn’t love.
Ms. Bennetts glosses over those complications; to her, dads just need a good, long lecture about how to behave. And moms–well, they just need to read “The Feminine Mistake” and see the error of their ways. She wants all women to live by her playbook, and scolds those who do otherwise. But Ms. Bennetts has spent far too much time hanging around presidents and movie stars in her charmed life to understand the difficult choices the rest of us make — and the easy ones, too, such as wanting to spend as much time with our children as humanly possible. In the end, her bragging becomes insufferable. “My work has made me who I am,” the mother of two says. This father of two has no idea what she’s talking about.
This article was first published in The New York Sun.