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 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.
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.