Journalist and author Leslie Bennetts on financial autonomy and Joan Rivers’ life lessons
Posted on April 29, 2017
When illustrious journalist Leslie Bennetts was in San Diego this spring, it was for a markedly different purpose than her last trip here, when she split her time at the Hotel Del Coronado and aboard Jerry Lewis’ yacht while researching a story on the comedy legend. Bennetts was here as the featured speaker at an event hosted by the Center for Community Solutions at the University Club, discussing women’s economic independence. While Bennetts’ focus is financial, where CCS follows a mission to end relationship and sexual violence, they share a common goal: the security and empowerment of women. “When women take charge of their own destiny, there’s no limit to what they can do,” Bennetts wrote in the event program’s welcome statement.
Bennetts’ journalistic highlights include being the first woman at the New York Times to cover a presidential campaign during her decade-long tenure there, and penning Vanity Fair’s best-selling cover story of all time (a candid first interview with Jennifer Aniston, post-Brangelina). However, of work that spans four decades during which she explored everything from politics to fashion, celebrities to spas, she believes a “more substantive contribution to the world” was the 2008 publication of her book The Feminine Mistake, which exposes the risks of women’s economic dependency. While controversial, there’s no questioning her conviction and desire to sound an alarm for women.
Her exploration into the subject of women and financial autonomy began after reading an article in 2003 published in the New York Times’ Sunday Times Magazine, which introduced the “Opting Out Revolution”— the trend of highly-educated, successful, professional women forsaking a career path to stay home and raise children. “The problem was that all those women were in their 30s and there was no context provided for what happens [next],” she says. “I started to feel very strongly that the mainstream media were doing an absolutely atrocious job of covering this issue; that they weren’t preparing women at all for what was going to happen when, if you [leave] the workforce, even if you have a Harvard degree, or a law degree, or an MBA, you might not even be able to get a job as a barista at Starbucks.”
The picture she paints isn’t exactly a rosy one, and it was naturally met with some backlash, to which Bennetts explains, “All I was really trying to say was, whatever you do, go into it with your eyes open, inform yourself of what the likely consequences are going to be, and try to prepare for them.”
While her opinions may seem harsh, she backs them up with a steady stream of research covering both the financial as well as the emotional ramifications of this choice. “Twice as many women end up in poverty in this country as men, and 60 percent of women over 60 have to choose between buying medications and buying food because they can’t afford both,” she says. “There’s an enormous body of social science research that shows that women who work outside the home for pay, no matter what they do, have better mental health, better emotional health, and even better physical health. And they fare so much better in the long-term — less substance abuse, less depression, less of everything else that is ‘bad’ — that there’s not even any question about what works better for women despite all this mythology about the stress of the juggling act,” says Bennetts, who adds, “None of this is meant to dis motherhood. I have enjoyed it tremendously, I have wonderful children, but these shouldn’t be either/or choices for women.”
The publication of The Feminine Mistake coincided with the recession as she was touring the globe, lecturing about women’s economic empowerment issues. She often felt frustrated, unable to offer clear solutions when women asked for them. When the opportunity to write a Joan Rivers biography came along, “I knew she had had an incredible life, but what I didn’t realize when I started it was that, embedded in her life story, were the answers to a lot of these questions.”
The title of Bennetts’ subsequent book, Last Girl Before Freeway, recalls Rivers’ iconic joke that her mother was so desperate to marry her off that she would put a sign in her yard that read “Last Girl Before Freeway.” However, Bennetts reveals, “The really ironic lesson of Joan Rivers’ life is that, although she was raised to think that happiness depended on finding Mr. Right, her husband actually ruined her life, and it was only when she [lost him] that she became her own most authentic, most successful, and happiest self.”
“Her life as she lived it out overturned all the expectations of previous eras, and what it represents is a much more authentic pathway for women to find their own true selves, and to build a life that truly expresses that rather than taking some script which we all pretend is one-size-fits-all, which it isn’t,” Bennetts continues. “So, I find her an incredibly inspiring role model for her courage and for being absolutely indomitable in the face of all challenges and setbacks, and I think we need more of those stories for women.”
The ultimate message Bennetts hopes women will discover: “You are responsible for your own life. Don’t ever think that it’s somebody else’s job or responsibility. It all comes down to you, and in order to be truly a grown up in this world, you have to take that responsibility,” she says. “And the good news is that if you do that, you will, over time, discover your own best life.” ccssd.org, leslie-bennetts.com Deanna Murphy
Photo by Bob Stefanko