Before we put the happiness gap to bed, here’s a fitting last word: some smoking-smart commentary from Barbara Ehrenreich I found on Mother Jones. The piece is entited “Are Women Getting Sadder? Or are we all just getting a lot more gullible?” That should tip you off.
Ehrenreich’s essay echoes a few of the points we’ve made ourselves, here, here and here, and adds a few more, arguments that should take a hammer to the debate that made the rounds a few weeks back, thanks to a series of posts by Marcus Buckingham on HuffPo.
Whatever you think about the original study — and the epidemic of head-scratching that trailed after — don’t blame feminism, she writes:
… it’s a little too soon to blame Gloria Steinem for our dependence on SSRIs. For all the high-level head-scratching induced by the Stevenson and Wolfers study, hardly anyone has pointed out (1) that there are some issues with happiness studies in general, (2) that there are some reasons to doubt this study in particular, or (3) that, even if you take this study at face value, it has nothing at all to say about the impact of feminism on anyone’s mood.
In case you don’t recognize her name, Ehrenreich is a feminist, activist, and journalist — who also has a Ph.D. in cell biology. In two of her most recent books — Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream — she lived the life: first going undercover as a low-wage worker to investigate poverty-level America, and second as a white-color job seeker. Her latest book is “BRIGHT-SIDED: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.” (Listen to an interview on NPR and read an excerpt here.)
Among the points Ehrenreich makes in her Mother Jones piece: Happiness is a notoriously slippery concept to measure; one of the objective measures of women’s happiness (or lack of same) is the suicide rate, which the authors of the study acknowledge has gone down; and finally, the current chat cycle may have been a plank in a marketing platform for Buckingham’s new book, Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently, which ends with a pitch for a bunch of related products you can buy:
It’s an old story: If you want to sell something, first find the terrible affliction that it cures. In the 1980s, as silicone implants were taking off, the doctors discovered “micromastia”—the “disease” of small-breastedness. More recently, as big pharma searches furiously for a female Viagra, an amazingly high 43% of women have been found to suffer from “Female Sexual Dysfunction,” or FSD. Now, it’s unhappiness, and the range of potential “cures” is dazzling: Seagrams, Godiva, and Harlequin, take note.
But what struck me most in this short piece was the way Ehrenreich effectively called out those who blame women’s unhappiness on feminism — and the choices women now have, largely because of it:
But let’s assume the study is sound and that (white) women have become less happy relative to men since 1972. Does that mean that feminism ruined their lives?
Not according to Stevenson and Wolfers, who find that “the relative decline in women’s well-being… holds for both working and stay-at-home mothers, for those married and divorced, for the old and the young, and across the education distribution”—as well as for both mothers and the childless. If feminism were the problem, you might expect divorced women to be less happy than married ones and employed women to be less happy than stay-at-homes. As for having children, the presumed premier source of female fulfillment: They actually make women less happy.
And if the women’s movement was such a big downer, you’d expect the saddest women to be those who had some direct exposure to the noxious effects of second wave feminism. As the authors report, however, “there is no evidence that women who experienced the protests and enthusiasm in the 1970s have seen their happiness gap widen by more than for those women who were just being born during that period.”
All of which reminds me of an op-ed Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman wrote a few years back on the occasion of Drew Gilpin Faust being named the first woman president of Harvard University:
… Faust’s announcement also came when the story line about feminism itself has taken an odd turn. On college campuses where women take rights for granted, many shy away from the F-word as if it were a dangerous brand. A second narrative has taken hold in many parts of the culture that says one generation’s feminism made the next generation unhappy.
There is talk about too many pressures and too many choices. It’s as if the success of feminism was to blame rather than its unfinished work. Indeed, it took Mary Cheney to offer bracing words at a recent Barnard College gathering: “This notion that women today are overwhelmed with choices, my God, my grandmother would have killed to have these choices.”
“Its unfinished work”. Love the sound of that. Whether we’re happy, sad, or somewhere stuck in Limbo, who cares? That’s irrelevant at best, a distraction at worst. Sure, we’ve got the options we wanted, but why do we still have trouble navigating them? Which leads to my question: Why did our work stall, and how do we get rolling again?