Oh, you know how I love to say I told you so–I love it so much that I love it when someone else whose work I admire can say it too! And Leslie Bennetts told us all so, in her book The Feminine Mistake, in which she argued against the whole concept of “opting out” for reasons of economic security, as well as for the fact that one’s years of having young children in the house are fleeting, and the years of the empty-nesters are a lot longer (one hopes, in any case.) Bennetts’s book was mentioned here briefly in passing last year and I highly recommended it to one and all.
Well, this weekend Bennetts is absolutely delighted that the New York Times has finally acknowledged the downside to quitting a good job and putting all of one’s eggs in one partner’s basket. She writes:
In this case, however, the paper of record bears an unusual responsibility for setting the record straight—something it has taken an extraordinarily long time to do. Six years ago The Times published a Sunday magazine cover story that discovered what it deemed a happy new trend among affluent women and coined a catchy phrase—the Opt-Out Revolution—to describe the cushy lives of women who quit their careers to become full-time mothers. In what seemed an astonishing oversight, nowhere in that 2003 cover story did The Times investigate the economic challenges that the privileged Princeton graduates it portrayed might face should they ever lose their husbands—or their husbands lose their incomes.
Since then, of course, boom has turned to bust and a global financial cataclysm has claimed the jobs of millions of men. . . . but even now The Times seems loath to acknowledge the levels of suffering and hardship that prevail throughout the country. Not until two-thirds of the way through Saturday’s story does the reporter quote a lawyer whose ten-month search failed to produce a single job offer. “This has been the most humbling experience,” said the woman, who finally became an unpaid intern at a law firm. Even later in the story, The Times relegates the stunning financial penalties suffered by women who opted out to a parenthetical aside: “(Studies have found that for every two years a woman is out of the labor force, her earnings fall by 10 percent, a penalty that lasts throughout her career.)”
Yikes! How’s that for an early pre-Halloween fright? Bennetts takes no joy in the miseries of these poor women who gave it all up for the patriarchy and who got the gate in return–rather, she trains her guns on The Times itself, which could have sounded the alarm about the risks of “opting-out.” (Then again, one of The Times’s own bigshot business reporters had a house foreclosed on–so I suppose looking to them to be responsible adults is probably a big mistake!) Anyhoo–Bennetts continues:
Having spent a significant chunk of my own life interviewing such women, I found The Times’ belated acknowledgment of their problems to be bittersweet. Two years ago, I published The Feminine Mistake, which documented the financial risks of dropping out of the work force and also criticized the mainstream media for neglecting the well-documented but catastrophically under-reported economic aspects of the opting-out trend.
The Times—whose Sunday book review section is notorious for its hostility toward serious books by and about women—assigned its review of The Feminine Mistake not to a recognized expert in any of the fields it dealt with, but rather to a stay-at-home mother who trashed it. Her verdict was not shared by The Washington Post, which featured The Feminine Mistake on the cover of its book review section and named as one of the best books of 2007. But The Times was not content with a critical pan; it also ran a major story a few days after The Feminine Mistake was published, saying that it wouldn’t sell and dismissing the book, rather prematurely, as a flop. The story neglected to mention that The Feminine Mistake, which became a national best-seller, was on The Times’ own extended best-seller list at that very moment; the paper refused to run a subsequent correction.
Just go read the whole thing. The New York Times is oddly and deeply invested in foisting conservative sex/gender roles on the rest of us. I’ve mentioned here before E. J. Graff’s brilliant article in the Columbia Journalism Review, “The Opt-Out Myth,” in which she reports on research by Joan C. Williams about how The New York Times has been running “opt-out” stories for the last half-century. (One of the greatest antifeminist “Groundhog Day” stories of all time!) Bennetts concludes her article with even more hair-raising tales of once high-earning women desperately trying just to survive with some kind of dignity:
Since The Feminine Mistake came out, I have followed the lives of many of the women I wrote about, and their stories haunt me. . . . Most of the women who looked for work couldn’t find it, and those who did were shocked at how little they could earn. One high-powered woman had opted out of her career for a short time but started trying to get back in when her husband left her for a younger woman. Despite years of effort, she has never succeeded. She finally found a teaching job that pays one-eighth of what she was earning twenty years ago. Her ex-husband has long failed to pay the child support he owes her, a six-figure sum she is now trying to chase down with expensive legal help. She has a lot of company; nearly 70 percent of child support cases in this country have arrears owed to the custodial parents, who are overwhelmingly female—one of several reasons why men’s standard of living rises after divorce while that of women and children typically plummets.
Memento poverty, my friends. Now, why doesn’t The New York Times report more on those fun facts and figures? Something to do with the old prejudice for the man-bites-dog over the dog-bites-man story, perhaps? That’s what all of that “opt-out” crap seemed like to me–about as realistic for most women as all of those Fendi bags and Tiffanys jewelry that are advertised each Sunday in the NYT. (A girl can dream, can’t she?) “Wife and Mother Schleps to Work, Returns Home Each Day” just doesn’t hold the same fascination as “Successful Woman Throws in the Towel at Work to Wipe Noses At Home,” does it?
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