Today’s Women Aren’t Mistaken; They’re Making a New Way

This post originally ran on August 19, 2011. I’m re-running it today because it introduces the themes of Work Shift so well. Launch day is Thursday, September 13! Stay tuned for details. 

I’ve just finished reading Leslie Bennets’s 2007 book The Feminine Mistake.  (The title riffs Betty Friedan’s landmark work The Feminine Mystique.)

The eponymous “mistake” Bennets refers to is women leaving the workforce to stay home with their kids.  Bennets argues that to be fulfilled and financially secure, women need to stay in the workforce full-time and resist the pull of the babies at home. Women have come a long way–we have so many more options than we did fifty years ago–and it would be a crying shame, she says, to throw it away by abandoning our careers and heading back home.  We’ll be happier if we stay, and the odds are good that leaving our jobs could mean financial ruin down the road.

Besides, Bennets argues, stay-at-home mothering is for losers.  (I paraphrase.)

“Is it asking too much,” asks Bennetts, a baby boomer, “that the generations coming along behind us should contribute to further progress instead of setting it back?”

But she’s wrong:  we’re seeing that progress.  It just doesn’t look anything like what Bennets expected it to.

The generations following Bennets’s just don’t share her values.  My generation doesn’t just want a job at the office; we want to choose how work and family blend together.  And more and more, we’re getting those choices.

Mothers can choose to work, or choose to stay home.  Staying home is increasingly viable and valuable–especially in the emerging new economies, which make all kinds of income-producing work possible from home–anything from telecommuting for Procter & Gamble to selling headbands on etsy.  Many women employed outside the home are deliberately choosing fields that are flexible (like my part-time position) so that our family lives will run more smoothly.  And we’re marrying men who aren’t married to their jobs.

Bennets says to women:  the workplace is rough on family life, but you’ll be happier in the long run if you tough it out. And if your husband dies, or leaves you (because she says the odds are fifty-fifty he will), you’ll have a solid income.

But my generation says:  that’s not a trade I’m willing to make. Bennets says the woman who leaves the workforce for home is a fool.  My generation isn’t buying it.  And better yet, we’re blurring the lines between her opposing choices.  (For example, I know many of my readers are devoted stay-at-home moms–and bloggers.  But what’s a blogger, but a person who is pursuing a passion online, perhaps for income, and building a writing portfolio to boot?  That’s halfway to Bennets’s definition of “work.”)

How is it backwards to forge a new path, to make the workplace itself family-friendly instead of conforming ourselves to what Bennets acknowledges to be its brokenness?  We’re making a new way. It’s not just women who value flexibility and family time–more and more, these things are important to men, too.  And it’s reflected in the increasingly family-friendly workplace.  Maybe not if you’re an investment banker or NYC law partner, but change is happening.

How are you seeing these issues play out in your own life?  Do you feel like you have options?  Is that a good thing for you?  Or do you think Bennets is right?  Post to comments.

 

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47 comments

  1. The caution I would say with all this is that while it’s important to create new ways to work, there’s also an element of taking work seriously — and that I think is what Bennets is getting at. Your new way to work also needs to still ensure you have the earning capacity to support your family at a reasonable standard of living if required.

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