The Feminine Mistake, Are We Giving Up Too Much? by Leslie Bennetts Hypoerion, $24.95

Author Leslie Bennetts was among those alarmed by a New York Times report that an increasing number of women with degrees from top colleges are choosing to become stay-at-home mothers. Rather than celebrating this as a choice now acceptable for brainy Ivy League graduates, Bennetts sees the phenomenon as fostering a dependency that ultimately puts these women in economic peril.

Starting with Bennetts’ grandmother, many of the women in this book lead what the author sees as a 1950’s style life that is interrupted when the husband comes home one night and, without warning, says he’s leaving, usually for another woman. As a child of divorced parents, I know a bit about what this does to the economics of a family. (I sometimes think that the harsher forms of feminism were born of men who acted like rats.)

Bennetts deserves credit for raising issues worthy of public discussion. But I think her “solution” is narrow, and that the women interviewed for the book, mostly members of the same elite milieu inhabited by Vanity Fair correspondent Bennetts, will be a turnoff to readers who live outside Manhattan and who don’t attend certain kinds of parties and share certain values. Make that will appall readers.

Along with feminist rhetoric (“a patriarchal society encourages women to subordinate their individual needs to those of the family”), there is a pervasive disdain for women who have chosen to stay at home. One woman, called Wendy Greenberg in the book (names are changed), appeared to be the ideal stay-at-home mother, but “if you dig deeper than Greenberg’s effervescent public persona and talent got hostessing, her story becomes far more complicated. It seems that the poster girl for stay-at-home motherhood is not a happy camper after all.”

As it turns out, Wendy had wanted to go to Yale School of Drama but had gone instead to law school, seemingly safer but she didn’t really like it and didn’t want to be a lawyer. Marriage, it appears, with the bargain to stay at home, was Wendy’s way out of practicing law. (Other women in the book run into trouble in the workplace because of “lack of female role models.”) When she first met Bennetts, Wendy maintained that she enjoyed her life and “shepherding” her daughter to ballet lessons. Because of her husband’s “refusal” to discuss finances with her, she was unprepared when the one-time whiz kid got into financial difficulties. “I tortured him: ‘You’ve disappointed me! We had this deal; you were going to be successful, and I was going to take care of the children, and everything was going to be fabulous. But this is not what I bought in for. What good are you now to me?'”

Bennetts comments that Wendy’s “comfortable” lifestyle might seem enviable to most Americans, but it pales in comparison when those of friends whose husbands earn a million dollars a year. Greenberg expected to own a palatial apartment by now, but instead, “It’s been seventeen years and we still rent,” she says. Rather than having her own country house, she visits her parents in the suburbs when she wants to escape the city. She and her husband are now debating whether to remove their kids from the private school whose steep tuition has become an enormous burden. Like I said, I don’t think the reader is going to care for a lot of the women in this book.

It is also probably possible to make the point that work can bring joy and meaning to our lives without sounding quite as soulless as Heidi Hartmann, founder of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. After professing that she would be willing to die for her children, she adds,”As I once said at a conference, unless you are the mother of an Einstein or a Madame Curie, which most of us are not, your own work, if it is significant, is probably more important to society than raising your kids.” So only a really brainy kid is valuable to society?

Bennetts’ answer to questions about women and work is: keep working. Hang onto the full-time professional job. The mother of two, she proposes “the fifteen year paradigm”–that is how long the “acute phase of mothering” lasts. “In exchange for staying the course, I’ve been able to enjoy an immensely rewarding career–not to mention an income that has sustained my family during some really difficult times when my husband’s employment was interrupted.” Of course, not all women are capable of working from home for one of the best-paying magazines in journalism.

Still, as I said, Bennetts (whom I tangled with in another life when I was a gossip columnist and know to be a formidable woman) does raise real issues. At the Independent Women’s Forum, we’ve urged flex time and other options to improve the life of the working mother. We might also consider reforming no-fault divorce and making divorces harder to get. I’ll bet as a member of New York’s chic journalistic set Bennetts probably won’t go for this one.

Charlotte Hays is senior editor at the Independent Women’s Forum.