“The extent to which women are oblivious to the demands of the labor force is stunning,” says Leslie Bennetts, who expects some backlash when her alarm bell to new mothers, The Feminine Mistake, comes out in April. In the book, Bennetts, a New York–based writer for Vanity Fair, argues that mothers who choose to “opt out” of work and stay home with their kids often make a grave mistake. Much of the author’s research came from the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit organization run by UIC sociology and gender politics professor Barbara Risman. Chicago spoke with Bennetts and Risman about the forthcoming book.
Q: How did the two of you come to work together?
Bennetts: There was a study that purported to show that women are happier in marriages with traditional family roles. Some thought the study was being misinterpreted. Barbara was one of the experts I called for a reality check.
Q: What did the study about traditional family roles reveal?
Bennetts: The conservatives were portraying this particular study in one way, but the major find was that women are happier in relationships where men do emotional work and are communicative.
Q: There has been such high-profile media coverage of how happy women are to opt out, even after years of law school. What do you believe is not being portrayed?
Bennetts: The book started with my exasperation with media’s portrayal of women staying at home. The New York Times had the “Opt-Out Revolution,” and there was an article in Time. The coverage never mentioned money. It never addressed the risk factors: half of marriages end in divorce. Husbands might die prematurely or be injured. It’s a volatile job market; he might become unemployed. None of the coverage told women they would pay a penalty for opting out for even a year.
Risman: I agree with the dangers, but I don’t agree that it’s an increasing problem. The phenomenon Leslie is discussing is still only for the elite classes.
Bennetts: The opting out trend used to be an elite issue, but it’s much broader than previously understood. Staying at home is being glorified, and it puts pressure on regular women.
Q: How are the husbands responding to the women who want to opt out?
Bennetts: It creates an unbelievable pressure on men to be the breadwinner. Wouldn’t you feel pressure if someone said to you, “You’re supposed to be the breadwinner and you’re disappointing me"?
Risman: The data on who men are marrying backs that up. Women who are higher earners and more educated are more likely to get married.
Q: What can women who hear the stats and want to opt out anyway do for their futures?
Bennetts: Women need to get serious about what they want. We teach girls that “wife” and “mother” are job titles. It’s crucial to change the way we raise girls. They need to know they have to support themselves, not just economically but also emotionally.
Risman: There is good evidence to show that women in marriages with egalitarian roles are happier. Women shoulder the burden of the second shift, and it undercuts marital equality. There is a negotiation that women have to do that is important. Men certainly don’t do half of the housework, but the long-term trend is in the right direction. The change is based on how individual women make negotiations in how marriages work.
Bennetts: As Stephanie Coontz said in Marriage: A History, marriage has changed more in the last 30 years than the last 300.
Q: The women who have balance in The Feminine Mistake all love their jobs. Is that the key?
Bennetts: The good news is there are benefits of working, and it’s more than just a paycheck. Working women are happier and healthier than women who stay at home.