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The Feminine Mistake: Musings and a Conversation with Leslie Bennetts

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As a child growing up, I exhibited an entrepreneurial streak with weekends and summers spent making and selling jewelry at a local craft shop on the main street of our small suburban neighborhood. Negotiating fair prices at local yard sales and perfecting my lemonade concentration to keep thirsty passers-by happy and my nickel jar full, just all seemed to suit my personality.


I was a businesswoman, no doubt about it, even at age six. I knew I wanted to become an entrepreneur long before I had ever taken a business class or even heard the term. In hindsight, I never really understood what all the fuss was about regarding the on-going debate about a woman’s work or place in the world. The idea of being both a mother and an accomplished career person, much like my talent for concession sales years earlier, was quite simply put, a no-brainer. No one ever told me that this was impossible or beyond my reach. Quite the contrary, I was raised to “Dream Big” and then taught to “work smart” to make those dreams happen.


It wasn’t until recent years in which I held a corporate job, was growing ChickSpeak, and trying (at times unsuccessfully) to maintain some semblance of a social life that I began to question how I, as a woman, could one day “have it all.”


I knew I wanted to play each role of wife, mother, and businesswoman (not to mention good friend, sister and community leader) well and couldn’t envision how that would come together while working someone else’s hours.


With many more details along the way, in time I became one of the many women in corporate America to “Opt Out.” I got to a point where I knew that something had to give and it wasn’t about to be my passion (ChickSpeak) or my chances at having and raising a family well, so the job for Company X got the boot.


I recognize that I was lucky to be able to do this.


What I’ve done, in opting away from being an employee to being my own boss (a true entrepreneur) is seen as a quickly growing trend for young women out of college. Classes and majors in Small Business Management and Entrepreneurialism are at an all time high. News that leads me to wonder if I would have made the move to launch and manage my own company earlier if I would have had Leslie Bennett’s book, The Feminine Mistake, sooner.


While Leslie has gotten a wide range of praise from working women to, at times, scathing letters and calls from stay-at-home moms, once you read her book-not assume its contents—but really read it—something powerful happens: You begin to ask more questions.


I believe that far too many of us assume the roles that have been presented to us or create lives based on romantic ideals. Neither of these scenarios is bad, per say, but when life decisions are made without a big picture and solid facts to ground the dreams, it’s all too easy to end up with regrets.


Leslie Bennetts graciously allowed us to interview her, as we had plenty of questions after reading and talking about The Feminine Mistake.


Interview questions contributed by ChickSpeak contributing writer, Lorna Golder.


ChickSpeak: You discuss in your prologue how much you learned from your mother about the importance of financial independence for women in raising their families. What role did your father play in shaping your attitudes on family?


Leslie Bennetts: My father was a good, kind, decent man, but he was born in 1904, and when I was growing up in the 1950’s and early 60’s, he seemed very much a product of his era. Although both my parents worked, my mother came home from the office, cooked an elaborate homemade dinner, washed the dishes, did laundry and ironing and housekeeping, helped my brother and me with our homework, got us to bed, baked cookies for whatever school event required it the next day, and stayed up until the wee hours trying to get everything done.


Meanwhile my father read the evening papers, dozed off in front of the television set, and went to bed early. The imbalance in their assumed responsibilities struck me as quite unfair, and undoubtedly influenced my desire for a more equal partnership in my own marriage.


ChickSpeak: What advice would you give young women who are just starting out in their careers? How about young women who marry right out of college?


Leslie Bennetts: Whether or not she marries at a young age, I believe it’s crucial for every woman to understand that she will almost certainly have to take care of herself at some point in her adult life, and to plan accordingly. This means figuring out a viable career—hopefully one in which she does meaningful work that reflects her passions and abilities, as well as enabling her to support herself and her children, if need be.


More than 90 percent of American women have to take responsibility for their own finances at some point in their lives, and—with a 50 percent divorce rate and women’s lengthening life expectancy—marriage increasingly represents only a finite segment of the average woman’s adult lifespan.


Young women often assume they don’t have to worry about supporting themselves if they marry a successful man, but the majority of them will end up alone, many in financial hardships. The best way for a young woman to protect her own future and lead a fulfilling life is to build an enduring career that nourishes her intellectually and emotionally as well as economically.

 


ChickSpeak: Do you feel that working women and stay-at-home mothers will ever be able to see eye-to eye? How should these two sectors of women with different lifestyles and opinions work to come to understand one another?


Leslie Bennetts: These aren’t really two separate groups of women; many go back and forth between working and staying at home or working part-time at various times in their lives. But I do think most women feel guilty and defensive no matter what their choices, and the result is often anger on both sides.


My hope in writing The Feminine Mistake was to move the discussion beyond emotion and get people to focus on a lot of important facts that are often overlooked. The media coverage of these work and family issues has been terrible, and as a result, many women are poorly informed about the long-term consequences of their decision to give up work and stay home.


Over the long run, most full-time homemakers pay a high price for this choice, and frequently end up feeling very bitter about the outcome. Information is power, and I believe that greater knowledge will help all of us to make choices that better protect ourselves and our families, as well as to understand the different choices made by others.



ChickSpeak: What do you feel is the motivating factor behind women’s decisions to stay home? What would you say to a young woman who truly wants to just get married and play a “supporting” role?



Leslie Bennetts: Girls are still being raised on fairy tales that condition them to believe, on an emotional level they may not even recognize, that Prince Charming will come along and take care of them. The facts of the 21st century life make it painfully clear that this simply isn’t true. It is vital for women who just want to stay home to inform themselves about what this will really mean for their own futures, not only economic but emotional and intellectual and creative as well.


Social science research makes it very clear that working women are happier than stay-at-home mothers; when full-time homemakers return to paid work outside the home, their mental and emotional health improves significantly. Working women are also healthier than full-time homemakers, who are subject to a far higher incidence of a wide range of medical problems.


Before making decisions that will compromise their own futures, women should be aware of the facts. But many are not, which is why I wrote The Feminine Mistake; my goal was to close the information gap that puts so many women at risk.


ChickSpeak: What do you think it will take to really achieve equality for men and women that not only allows mothers to maintain their careers more effectively, but also allows fathers to spend more time with their children?



Leslie Bennetts: More women are sharing the breadwinning with men, usually out of financial necessity. For most American families, it takes two incomes to provide the basics that one breadwinner could provide a generation ago. These days it is crucial for women to maintain their income-earning capacity in order to protect themselves and their children. But if women work outside the home, men have to share the child-rearing and domestic responsibilities more equitably. It’s grossly unfair for working women to be saddled with the so-called “second shift,” and the resulting stress is not good for any member of the family.



In my book, I reported on some fascinating research showing that children who do housework with their fathers have more friends, less depression, and do better in school than children who do not do housework with their fathers. When the dad spends more time with his kids, it strengthens their bond as well as relieving his wife. Traditional gender roles leave women and children far too vulnerable to economic hardship, and they deprive men of many of the joys of parenting. The only effective way for families to protect themselves in today’s world is for women to share the breadwinning and men to share the domestic responsibilities. In the 21st century, the facts alone make it very clear that marriages that are more egalitarian, work better for everyone concerned.


* A Special Thanks to Leslie Bennetts and Beth Gebhard.

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