Not so Happily Ever After

It's not a crime to publish a perky, upbeat book claiming that all women need do to be happy and wealthy is stop working and support their husbands' careers by massaging their egos and pushing them to get ahead. Megan Basham, the author of Beside Every Successful Man, had every right to quit her own job because she was frustrated that her slacker spouse hadn't come up with a long term career goal. (She didn't quit to care for her kids; she doesn't yet have any.) Pressured by his helpful wife to dream big, he finally decided maybe he'd like to become a TV weatherman. Basham thinks that will be her ticket to Easy Street, and she's recommending a similar choice for other women.

If the economy were booming and everyone were still dreaming that flush times would last forever, one might dismiss a delusional book like this simply because it distorts the truth, cherry-picks the facts, misrepresents the work of serious researchers and the histories of public figures, and -- most egregiously -- ignores the challenging realities of many women's lives, which Basham never bothered to investigate.

But it was her bad luck to publish this appalling book at the precise moment when the women who followed such advice began to see their entire worlds collapse around them. Homemakers who felt no need to help support their families financially are panicking as their husbands lose those cushy Wall Street jobs, their net worth goes up in smoke, and they suddenly realize they've staked their lives -- not to mention their children's futures -- on a high wire without a safety net. Now many of their families are in free-fall.

"The Park Avenue wives are all flipping out," says one Manhattan East Sider. In the wealthy suburbs, things are no better. "There's a for-sale sign in front of every other house. One neighbor just called to tell me she and her husband are selling everything and moving to Maine," reports a New Jersey soccer mom who gave up her career and -- after her husband left her and their three kids -- found she could only get jobs that paid one-tenth of what she made fifteen years ago.

No matter how far you drive, it's hard to escape such realities; gas and groceries are expensive in Maine, too. As banks fold, corporations lay off thousands of people, and thousands more face foreclosure on their homes, one might imagine that the right-wing advocates of conventional gender roles would pause to consider the terrible hardships now facing many single-breadwinner families who followed their advice. But they're not willing to admit that their message is dangerous and puts women and children at risk, so they're resorting instead to the familiar tactic of shooting the messenger.

Last year I published The Feminine Mistake, a bestseller documenting what actually happens when women give up work and assume their husbands will take care of them forever. Publishers Weekly called it "impeccably researched"; The Washington Post cited it as one of the best books of the year. When Basham's book was published last month, I was invited to appear with her on The Today Show as well as Judith Regan's Sirius satellite radio show, because the producers were concerned about providing factual context for her wild claims. Clearly unsettled by the challenge -- perhaps she, like Gov. Sarah Palin, had hoped to deliver her simple-minded message without the "filter" of inconvenient facts -- Basham has now attacked me personally on

She writes that her friends, after watching our appearance, assumed I must have been abandoned by my husband, because they couldn't think of any other reason I might be angry about a book encouraging women to make a choice that wrecks the lives of so many. Basham concedes that her pals were "incredulous" to hear that I've been married for more than two decades and that my husband and I have two children; such snipers typically conclude that I must be "bitter and childless," as one put it. A pretty blonde 32-year-old, Basham says she can't understand why older women like myself and Regan seem so angry about her blithely self-assured "advice." So she dismisses us as arrogant old feminists who must be insulted that younger women aren't following our lead by building careers as well as families.

Well, here's a news flash for you, Megan: I don't care what you do with your life, and I have no need to see anyone else ratify my own choices by emulating them. They worked out very well for me and my loved ones, protecting us from hardship in times of trouble, and I'm extremely grateful for the opportunities I've had to do so. I hope your choices work out equally well for you.

But as a reporter for the last 38 years, I do care when a self-appointed "expert" twists the truth to fit a political agenda. I do care that you not only pretend to have interviewed people you've never spoken with, but that you misrepresent their lives and their work, as you did with subjects ranging from Jeff Bezos to Harvard law professor and author Elizabeth Warren. Shocked by your distortion of the facts, I asked you if you'd ever interviewed either of them. You admitted you hadn't -- but when I said I know how dishonestly you've written about them because I myself have interviewed both Bezos and Warren at length, you accused me of "name-dropping."

Here's another news flash: That's not name-dropping, Megan. It's called reporting. You should try it sometime, if you want to write non-fiction books. It can be a real eye-opener.

Even before the crash of the last few weeks, the financial realities of women's lives were all too clear to anyone who took the trouble to look into them. Because The Feminine Mistake was so controversial, I was inundated with hundreds of speaking engagements, and I spent months on the road, talking with thousands of women all over the country. From small towns to big cities, from red states to blue, from east to west, and at every socio-economic level, women told me some version of the same story: they counted on a man to support them, they lost that gamble, and now they can't earn an adequate living and their children are suffering. Some of these accounts were horror stories about scoundrel husbands who ran off with other women, but I also heard many more about loyal husbands who got sick, or were laid off, or died unexpectedly. Their hapless wives weren't guilty of "thinking of [their] husbands as enemy combatants," as Basham charged; they were guilty only of suffering bad luck.

Yes, Megan, I spoke sharply to you after our segment on The Today Show ended, but you misquoted me, as you have so many others. What I actually said to you off-camera was that I think what you're doing is immoral. Just as it was unethical for Wall Street bigwigs to gamble other people's security on irresponsible actions that would ultimately doom thousands of people to job loss and financial hardship, I think it's irresponsible and unethical for those who posture as "pro-family" advocates to promote the equally foolish and unrealistic idea that women can find security in giving up their ability to support themselves. They can't, as the facts prove all too conclusively. Just take a look at the poverty statistics I quoted in my book.

The 1950's homemakers of the "feminine mystique" era learned that lesson the hard way during the divorce revolution of the 1970's, which left so many of them stranded. In The Feminine Mistake, I quoted the philosopher George Santayana's observation that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. If people insist on remaining ignorant, maybe it's unrealistic to think they might learn from the past.

But what about learning from the present? Given the seismic shifts that are now toppling many of the social and institutional structures we've all relied on, is it really too much to ask that the Megan Bashams of the world face the facts at long last?

This isn't about politics, or feminism, or about youth versus age. This isn't about my life, or Basham's life, or even about a personal vendetta by an unqualified author who doesn't know the difference between reporting and propaganda.

This is about survival. Families are losing everything, and women are terrified. The stakes are far too high to continue believing in fairy tales.

Have you looked around you lately?