Magazine article The New Yorker

THE WIVES OF OTHERS; Books

Magazine article The New Yorker

THE WIVES OF OTHERS; Books

Article excerpt

r16127verticalDAVID JOHNSONLeslie BennettsWhen Betty Friedan wrote "The Feminine Mystique," forty-four years ago, she did more than launch a revolution by identifying "the problem that has no name"--the crushing ennui of the modern housewife. She also invited a bit of wordplay that has proved irresistible both to her detractors and to her would-be successors. If "The Feminine Mystique" has acquired the status of a classic, the various iterations of "The Feminine Mistake" have provided something of a barometer of a shifting cultural climate.

In 1967, "Alice in Womanland, or The Feminine Mistake," by the pseudonymous Margaret Bennett, provided a satirical overview of the condition of the American woman, its chapters on marriage, family, and work framed within an extended allusion to Lewis Carroll--a tactic that, like the lyrics to Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," might once have made sense but these days indicates a culture that was on the verge of losing its collective mind. By 1971, the feminist movement was sufficiently well established to merit a parodic counterblast from the humorist Cal Samra, whose own "The Feminine Mistake" was, he claimed, "perhaps the first true masculinist tract since the Koran." When Judith Posner's "The Feminine Mistake" appeared, in 1992, it was time for feminist one-upmanship. Posner, a sociologist influenced by the burgeoning New Age movement, argued that those women who had followed Friedan's counsel and sought to enter the workplace on a par with men had gained nothing but their own subjection to corporate culture, and would do well to cast aside career in favor of personal growth, forming a vanguard for the wholesale reformation of consumer capitalism. "We can even say that the glass ceiling was a blessing in disguise," she maintained. "Today, women can not only see to the glass ceiling, they can also see through it."

The latest "Feminine Mistake" (Voice; $24.95), by the journalist Leslie Bennetts, means to be a corrective to such correctives. Just as Posner's book was conceived as a response to the media phenomenon of the overwhelmed Superwoman (Posner cited a Time cover from 1989 that featured a woman with a baby in one arm and a briefcase in the other, accompanied by the text "In the '80s they tried to have it all. Now they've just plain had it. Is there a future for feminism?"), Bennetts's book appears amid trend stories like one that was published, notoriously, in the Times in the fall of 2005, in which female Ivy League students disparaged the working-mother model of their mothers' generation and declared an intention to be provided for by their future husbands as soon as they possibly could.

Bennetts, who is the same age as the mothers of those Ivy Leaguers, is appalled by that attitude. She argues that women must work, even after becoming mothers--not so much because, as Betty Friedan lyrically expounded, "if women do not put forth, finally, that effort to become all that they have it in them to become, they will forfeit their own humanity," as because a woman without a job or a career will be in dire economic straits if she loses her provider to death, desertion, or debility. Nor should a woman who leaves the workplace when her children are babies count on being able to rejoin it later; her skills may have become unmarketable, Bennetts warns, and her years off will be counted against her. "It's nice to be at home when your child loses her fourth tooth," she writes, "but is it worth the price you might pay if your breadwinner dies or divorces you, and you end up losing that home entirely?" The feminists of Bennetts's youth proclaimed that a woman needs a man the way a fish needs a bicycle; Bennetts's point is that bicycles get broken or stolen all the time.

She is alarmed that women aren't taking precautions. …

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