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What Women Want

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Megan Basham’s new book paints a troubling and misleading portrait of the choices facing working mothers.

Sarah Palin—mother, governor, moose hunter—burst onto the national scene in August with a face and a life story that launched a thousand editorials. Not only has she achieved great professional success, she also has a healthy marriage steamy enough to produce five children. Like Hillary Clinton, she took her husband’s name; but unlike Hillary, it was she who first made the family name famous.

Clearly the Palins can teach us an interesting lesson about modern marriage. Journalist Megan Basham, though, is having none of it. According to her new book, Beside Every Successful Man (Crown Forum, $24.95), Palin would have had a much better partnership if she had thrown her managerial and public relations talents into building up Todd’s career instead of her own.

Basham’s reasoning? Women do not really want careers. “Ask a group of mothers if they would continue to work full-time if they didn’t have to and the answer will overwhelmingly come back ‘No!’” she writes. In her universe, women prefer to “devote hours to planning a pumpkin patch excursion or to scrapbooking our most recent family vacation.”

Opting out of work in a two-income world, though, requires financial sacrifice. So wouldn’t it be better to help your husband make a lot of money instead? That way, you can quit but not have to budget “all the niceties out of life.” Sure, women these days often have professional degrees and professional skills, but a smart woman doesn’t let this reality tie her to the workforce. Instead, a good wife uses “all the wonderful talent, intelligence, and skill she possesses to help her husband get ahead.”

The bulk of Beside Every Successful Man is aimed at showing women how to help their husbands achieve that kind of professional success. As such, it is a fairly standard career guide, albeit one cleverly packaged to reflect the fact that it is generally women, not men, who buy self-help books. Basham also includes a handful of interviews with wives of A-list men, which are interesting if only because journalists seldom profile corporate spouses. Some of her advice works for both genders; we would all do well to realize that “spouses have a tremendous power to help each other become either more or less like their ideal selves.” As Basham points out, there’s nothing wrong with being supportive of your spouse. “After all, don’t most married people want to see their spouse do well?”

The two-people-one-paycheck model Basham extols makes life harder, not only on working moms, but also on men who want to have a balanced life and spend more time with their children.

But this is a rare nugget of wisdom in what is often a troubling and misleading book. The thesis is based largely on opinion polling. Basham does not seem to realize that by tweaking the wording of poll questions you can significantly change the results. She cites two polls saying that 72 percent or 78 percent of fathers would continue to work if they didn’t have to; these figures are presented as evidence that being a provider is crucial to male identity and marital happiness. But I can point to a Harris Interactive poll which found that 60 percent of high-achieving young men would prefer, if money were no object, to stay home with their kids. And a recent Glamour magazine survey found that an even higher percentage of men would consider staying home if their wives made significantly more money than they did.

So which polls are correct? Who knows? Basham claims that the majority of mothers would opt out if they could; and yet other studies have found that the majority of moms married to men earning over $120,000 a year are still in the workforce. Clearly, these women could quit their jobs and stay home full-time if they wanted. Perhaps both men and women have more nuanced views on these matters than Basham thinks.

Aside from the problems with polling, Basham’s advice to women reveals a blind spot. She praises women who bake cookies for their husbands’ clients, women who do their husbands’ accounting or write their reports, and women who take everything off their husbands’ plates at home so these men can devote themselves fully to achieving professional success. Yet she also devotes a full chapter to lamenting the “work-worship in America these days,” including the rise of the extreme worker, “people characterized by seventy-hour-or-more workweeks, constant availability to address work issues, and little downtime.”

It never seems to occur to her that one of the reasons corporations demand so much of their workers is that the men who run their offices often have stay-at-home wives clearing their schedules to maximize productivity, in Basham’s words. Because these executives are available 24/7 for work, they expect their people to be available, too. Studies have found that a big reason professional women drop out of the workforce is not that they don’t want to work, but rather that there is insufficient flexibility in their jobs—partly because their male colleagues and bosses have such “supportive” wives that they don’t need flexibility. In other words, the two-people-one-paycheck model Basham extols makes life harder, not only on working moms, but also on men who want to have a balanced life and spend more time with their children.

Basham claims that the Beside Every Successful Man approach is the “natural solution” to women’s professional dilemmas and the “third road” between unappealing assumptions that they are either “indulgent spendthrifts or lazy parasites.” But surely there are other satisfying solutions—just look at Basham’s own marriage. She writes of how she helped her husband change careers and become an on-air TV meteorologist. That required a lot of effort. One suspects, however, that writing a book, and appearing on the “Today” show and other such programs, as Basham has, requires a lot of effort, too. She could have spent that time helping her husband’s career. Does Basham honestly think she would have been happier if she had done that instead of writing? If she doesn’t think so, it’s unclear why any other woman should, either.

Laura Vanderkam is a writer in New York City.


Image Credit: Megan Basham.


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