Women are becoming less happy: What’s wrong with modern feminism?

Woman“Was happiness the goal? I always thought it was equality.”

That was the comment of a feminist writer this week in the Los Angeles Times, speaking on the goals of feminism. The statement is surprising—why would we think that women’s equality and happiness are opposed to each other?

The comment reveals a puzzle that has gone unsolved among feminists since 2009, when a landmark study cut short the unconscious narrative of the modern feminist movement, wherein the victories of feminism are always victories for women.

The puzzle is the juxtaposition of two facts: first, that the feminist movement has made historic progress in achieving its goals over the last half-century. Second, that women’s subjective well-being, or happiness, has unquestionably declined in absolute terms and in relation to men since the 1970s.

The research

The 2009 paper in the American Economic Journal, by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, was titled The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness, and it caused a stir in the social science world. The authors found, in their meta-analysis of data, that while women in the US and Europe were once happier than men by a comfortable margin, their advantage had steadily declined starting in the 1970s. By the mid-1980s the average level of happiness for women had fallen below that of men, and it began to fall even more quickly during the twenty-first century.

The declines in unhappiness among women are not easily reduced to other phenomena, because the declines have occurred among all age groups, races and education levels of women, and persist when controlling for cohort effects, employment and family status.

The paper alludes to a few possible explanations for the paradox. One involves marriage: married people are known to be happier than unmarried people, and this holds more strongly for women than for men. A falling marriage rate would likely contribute to lower relative female happiness.

Another explanation the authors suggest is that the women’s movement itself has made women less happy, by leading women to think that they are not “measuring up” in a world where women are more often expected to work for pay, and to compete in that sphere, in some way, with men.

Both of these possible causes rotate around the changing cultural and economic roles of women, and suggest the possibility that the achievements of second- and third-wave feminism have led women, in fact, to become less satisfied with life.

There is no way to prove this is the case, and it would be dishonest to conclusively indict modern feminism in causing female unhappiness. Nevertheless, the paradox still puts feminist theorists in a difficult intellectual spot, because no feminist would have predicted in 1970 that the women’s movement would be accompanied by a broad decline in female happiness, especially in relation to men.

But the reality of the last forty years seems to say that modern feminism either makes women unhappy, or else that at best, it has little or no power to make them happy. (If feminists disagree, perhaps they can bear the burden of the data and prove it.)

The goals of feminism

This is where we are reintroduced to the philosophical question introduced by the Los Angeles Times commentator: is feminism about equality or happiness? Ideally we take both, but if we must make one our goal to the possible detriment of the other, or at least some modern formulation of the other, which one will we take?

We have seen the fruits of the kind of feminism that devotes itself to modern egalitarian ideas before happiness. But what would happen if the aims of feminism were designed according to the criterion that they would lead to the most happiness for women?

That is, if feminist ideology were left aside for a moment, and the progressive assumptions so peculiar to our age were temporarily locked in their ivory tower, what kind of public policy would we find would really bring more enjoyment into the lives of women?

Social science has been fairly conclusive on many of the correlates of happiness in the Western world, and some of these correlates are especially powerful for women. It is worth taking note of these data by considering a few examples that may have been overlooked by activists.

A happiness-focused feminism

As mentioned before, married women are considerably happier than unmarried women (see the Stevenson paper, p. 217). Public policy that promoted the institution of marriage would seem to be an unambiguous gain for women. To be specific, perhaps public schools could teach teenage students about the emotional, psychological, and financial gains that accrue to married people (along with, of course, the sacrifices that are involved).

The story goes deeper than marriage: women are especially wounded by a reckless sexual culture. Sex unconnected from commitment does not lead to long run happiness for either sex, but men derive more satisfaction and less pain than women from these indiscretions. Ross Douthat argued recently, citing studies: “In our sexual culture, the male preference gets treated as normative even by women who don’t share it, and whose own comfort level with sex outside a committed relationship is actually substantially lower.” Even if we do not insist on marriage, women would probably benefit from a “somewhat more conservative sexual culture,” Douthat argues.

Speaking of our sexual culture, there are few places more hostile to women than the virtual world of pornography. Porn use has been shown to corrupt men’s attitudes toward women and to make them more inclined to violent sexual acts. It would make sense for feminists to advocate for a culture that stigmatizes pornography, and for public policy that would help establish that culture.

Women’s happiness is also more affected by instability in domestic life than is men’s. This is perhaps tied to higher female risk aversion. One of the most ubiquitous causes of domestic instability in the Western world is male alcohol use. Men are known to drink at least twice as much as women, and are responsible for about four-fifths of binge drinking. In the US, fifteen to twenty million adults are dependent on alcohol, two thirds of them men.

Alcohol’s costs in comparison to other drugs are particularly social—for example, if a married man is an alcoholic, it is his wife and children who pay much of the price. Alcohol use, even at relatively moderate levels of consumption, also increases the likelihood of rape and other forms of violence by men. Feminists interested in female well-being should fight the culture that normalizes this extraordinarily pervasive social vice, a primarily male indulgence.

Feminism’s future

I have offered a few suggestions for a happiness-focused feminism: strengthening the marriage institution and fighting a culture of promiscuity, pornography and alcohol. If, as I have suggested, we define feminism as a program of initiatives that are likely to make women happier, then feminism will include these traditionalist ideas (as well as others).

However, like the LA Times commentator, academic feminists have rarely sponsored these policies, and in the case of marriage, they have sometimes promoted the opposite. Indeed, they have made organizations and churches advancing these goals their enemies. They seem to ask, in response to gloomy female happiness data, “was happiness the goal?”

Perhaps we have found the explanation for the refusal of a majority of American women to identify as feminist: modern feminism is not really designed to increase the quality of women’s lives. On the contrary, it is an ideology that is firstly anti-traditional and only secondly pro-women: women’s well-being is incidental (and perhaps obstructive) to the cause of progressivism.

If this is feminism, please count me out.

However, if feminism is the promotion of policies known to make women happier (whether the policies are conservative or progressive), count me in. I look with optimism toward a more virtuous society, where the happiness of women and men is the germ of our cultural philosophy, and ultimately the fruits of its efforts.

Photo Credit: Mait Jüriado.

13 thoughts on “Women are becoming less happy: What’s wrong with modern feminism?

  1. First of all, if you are going to use a scientific paper as a reference, you might want to read it properly and not simply pick and choose (see following excerpt) “As a result of increases in divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing by age 15, about half of all children in the United States are no longer living with both biological parents (David T. Elwood and Christopher Jencks 2004). These changes have, however, disproportionately impacted nonwhite women and white women with less education (Elwood and Jencks 2004; Adam Isen and Stevenson 2008) and thus, if the decline in women’s happiness is related to these trends, we should expect to see greater happiness declines among these women. ”
    I encourage you to read it again because it completely contradicts many of your supposedly valid statements.
    Secondly, how dare you encourage schools to teach people that they SHOULD get married. Open your eyes to the realization that some people should not get married. You should be ashamed to even suggest that people should get married, because it is often the wrong decision. It pressures them into finding a person as quickly as possible (who is often wrong) simply due to societal standards that are WRONG. Happiness is not achieved by just marriage. Your views are so utterly skewed by your religious beliefs that I can barely stand reading your “article”. I have no problems with your views on alcoholism, sexual culture, and perhaps the skewed reality of feminism but this is because they are factually supported. Just because your money-stealing church told you women should get married does not make it so. Do your research. Open your eyes.

    • Thanks for your comment. I did read the paper, and I made an effort not to misrepresent it, but it’s possible I made a mistake. I’m unable to see a contradiction between the paragraph you quoted and my article, however.

      And I was careful about the way I worded my suggestion about education. I didn’t say that schools should teach kids that they “should” get married. I said they should teach students about the benefits of marriage, as well as about the sacrifices involved.

    • “Open your eyes to the realization that some people should not get married. You should be ashamed to even suggest that people should get married, because it is often the wrong decision.”

      He actually said that schools should teach the benefits of marriage. That’s a bit different than telling people they *should* get married. As for it being the “wrong decision,” compared to what?

      “It pressures them into finding a person as quickly as possible (who is often wrong) simply due to societal standards that are WRONG.”

      This seems to have more to do with marriage age, which has actually been increasing. A recent report by the National Marriage Project has outlined the pros and cons of late marriage. I personally think the pros outweigh the cons (though the trend toward premarital sex and out-of-wedlock births is a possible and worrying con).

      “Happiness is not achieved by just marriage.”

      No one claimed otherwise, but you’re right: about 50% of it is
      due to your genes with another 40% resting on major life event, neither of which you really have control over. The rest, however, is due to your life choices, one of which is marriage. In fact, sociological research continues to find significant correlations between happiness and marriage (all things being equal). A fine overview can be found in the book ‘The Case for Marriage’. Economist Arthur Brooks also found marriage to be a major factor for happiness in the United States in his book ‘Gross National Happiness’. A 2005 study looked at the trends in happiness among married people and found that there has always been a “happiness gap” between married and non-married people according to General Social Survey data from 1972 to 2002. While the gap diminished some in the 1980s, the trend reversed and the gap is just as big as before. As the study says in its introduction, “Evidence has accumulated for years that married persons are better off than unmarried persons on a variety of dimensions, including particularly psychological well-being (Glenn, 1975; Gove, Hughes, & Style, 1983; Gove, Style, & Hughes, 1990; Kim & McKenry, 2002; Lamb, Lee, & DeMaris, 2003; Marks & Lambert, 1998; Simon, 2002; Simon & Marcussen, 1999; Stack & Eshleman, 1998). Although there are some contrary findings (e.g., Wu & Hart, 2002), the vast majority of the evidence indicates that married persons are happier and less depressed than unmarried persons” (Lee, Bulanda, “Change and Consistency in the Relation of Marital Status to Personal Happiness,” Marriage & Family Review 38:1, 2005: 70).

      So, perhaps his views are not “so utterly skewed by [the] religious beliefs” of his “money-stealing church,” but are instead “factually supported.”

      In other words, “Do your research. Open your eyes.”

  2. Don’t worry Tom, this girl’s ‘personal opinions’ are just what she’s trying to express in a very emotional and one-sided exchange. To break up the family is to break up stability, physically and emotionally. I read the paper as well and as the data suggests, being based off of reliable survey efforts like the ‘Eurobarometer’, it is appropriate making suggestions that marriage has a great effect on personal happiness. Culturally it has always been assumed that it is the female that would want the additional commitment like marriage and its that inability in males to provide that commitment which can cause for more sadness.
    In my own observations and thoughts, I think more emphasis on the issues of unhappiness in women can correlate with unstable wages and financial concerns. After every economic depression it seems that happiness declines with additional financial stress. For women, that stress is more then men’s because of the ‘still’ large wage gap difference in higher paying salaries among the two genders.
    In any case i appreciated the article and the reference to the study. At least your efforts are made to publish these concerns rather than bash and contradict them from an opinionated point of view.

  3. Your article is incomplete.

    Although you disclaim that you do can not know that feminism is correlated to the decline in satisfaction you state over and over that is. If you cannot claim something based on fact then you should back your opinion up with a thorough analysis of what feminism has done to reduce happiness.

    Feminism is not a political party, it is the idea that stratification by gender is wrong. It is defined as the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men. This definition simply does not interact with your data regarding why women are unhappy. Equality within marriage is inside the scope of feminism but supporting or denigrating marriage or not. Thus, if people are against marriage they are not against it as feminists.

    Your ideas about what feminists should support fall outside the purview of feminism. You may consider revising this article to better support your premise.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. My article may be incomplete, but I think the discrepancy you see comes partly from the fact that feminism as defined in a dictionary does not capture all of the common characteristics of feminism as practiced by self-identified feminists. This helps explain why far more women express a belief in the equality of the sexes than identify as feminist.

      To be more explicit: while many conservative women believe in the equality of the sexes, they do not share the progressive political and social views that seem to be shared by nearly all vocal feminists.

      As far as marriage, I disagree with you: I think that either support or opposition to marriage can fall within the scope of feminism. The second wave of feminism in particular involved a notable critique of marriage as an institution.

      • So do you have data regarding feminist views or are you working off of anecdote?

        If you are speaking about your definition of practical feminism then I think that significantly weakens your argument. That’s why I feel like addressing feminism itself would improve your argument.

      • Hi Dan,
        I am inclined to agree with Tom. While the ‘pure’ description of a feminist may be as you described, my observations have been in line with the description Tom made above. Many feminists (self described), most by my observation, are quite opposed to anything that holds the potential for difference between the sexes. In a marriage/family a male would be a husband/father and a female a wife/mother. Before we even get into ‘roles’ there is a name change that occurs and that really irks the more vocal feminists. Then there is the cooking, cleaning, working, home maintenance etc. which has been the center of so much attention. Bring children into the scene and now someone needs to take care of them. Tradition has it that the Mother takes on the lions share of this (a concept not out of step with evolutionary development) but then that means she is not in the work force. And of course, the truly vocal feminists know without a doubt that true value and satisfaction with life cannot be found without a full time job making money. Thus, marriage is in stark opposition to their described goal.
        I know a lot of women who would not like to describe themselves as feminists because they do not hold similar views on this and other matters, but they are in full support of equality, respect, feminine strength and influence. It is also worth mentioning that these women (who incidentally are married to good men and have loving children) are the happiest women I know.
        I am not trying to suggest that this should be taken as fact for all women everywhere, or that I have done a comprehensive study on this subject. I am simply stating my observations with a note that they are fully in line with what Tom has shared in his article, and in agreement with his statement on feminists.

    • Your ideas about what “feminism is” have been incubated in a culture that denies the reality of nature; indeed, seeks to “rise above” it at every turn. Men and women can never be “equal,” and to suggest that they can merely evidences ignorance about physical reality or the definition of “equal.” Men and women are equally deserving of respect and honor for their roles that are defined by nature. Feminism. when you cut all it’s overindulgent intellectualism ando jargon, is the premise that women can do anything that men can. Following this premise,women have internalized all the worst qualities of men, suppressed their natural feminine qualities, and allowed themselves to be “toughened up” by a culture that promotes degradation, mistrust, and promiscuity. Or perhaps you’d like to suggest anoer hypothesis for the plummeting marriage rate. But this, I fear, is a pointless drill, as feminism also promotes the idea that a family is a man, a woman, and children. You and your ilk will argue up to the gates of hell against the reality that is manifest in every cell of your body: half from your mother, half from your father. Heterosexuality. Marriaige. Family. Society. But go ahead, you obviously know best, and your brave new world is clearly working out for the better.

  4. I don’t understand how you can possibly analyze this CORRELATION without considering whether or not the reported happiness of men has also declined since the 1970s.

    If you look at the data it appears that the happiness of men has in fact declined at very similar rates. Women’s happiness declined a little more which is why it is lower. But you cannot ignore the fact that male happiness did decline! Also, over the years this has flipped flopped. I see several points in the data when male happiness dipped below female.

    • Thanks for bringing this up. I would have to reread the paper to be certain about the details, but if I am remembering right, there were a few datasets analyzed with respect to male and female happiness, and on male data, the results were usually not statistically significant. When they were they usually showed a positive trend. The ordered probit and OLS analyses of the General Social Survey in particular (the main dataset, I think) showed a positive, but statistically insignificant time trend in men’s happiness. A probit (binary) estimation of the proportion of “very happy” people (a somewhat different measure) did show a negative, but statistically insignificant time trend for men. I don’t think you could conclude from all this taken together that men’s happiness has declined. It’s fair to say that the male trend is uncertain (definitely less certain than the female data).

  5. “One involves marriage: married people are known to be happier than unmarried people, and this holds more strongly for women than for men. A falling marriage rate would likely contribute to lower relative female happiness.”

    Could this be because women today are often forced to choose between a family and their career? Women who are ambitious, especially in business-related fields, are often childless because it’s far harder for a woman with children to work long hours than men with children, because of the social roles that are still present today.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s