Nothing riles people up like feminism, and this includes feminists themselves. Feminists debate each other constantly about whether or not feminism is inclusive, intersectional, and diverse enough (the answer, in my opinion, is no), and whether or not the concerns of white, middle-class, cisgender women are given disproportionate attention in feminist spaces compared to those of lower-income women, trans women, and women of color (my opinion is that they are). But these debates remain confined to feminist and social justice circles.
The kind of feminist “debates” the non-feminist public is exposed to mainly revolve around two things: the issue of feminism’s supposedly harmful effects on children and the nuclear family, and the question of whether or not feminism has “failed.” Underlying and related to the latter are at least three additional questions: Did women’s liberation deliver (to white, middle-class, cisgender women) what it promised? Are women really better off today than they were in 1956? In other words, are women happier?
This last question is particularly interesting, because it rests on the premise that “happiness”—in some temporal, immediate sense of the word— is, or should be, the ultimate goal in life.
But before we discuss this, we should talk for a minute about the data. It is indeed true that many studies have shown that women’s self-reported happiness has actually declined since the 1970s. In a review of the literature on women’s happiness in the industrialized world since the 1970s, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers of the University of Pennsylvania note that this “measures of women’s subjective well-being have fallen both absolutely and relative to men.” Stevenson and Wolfers discuss a few potential reasons for this, some more convincing than others, but ultimately come to the conclusion that they can’t explain why women are less happy today than before. It is beyond the scope of this piece, as well as my analytical capabilities, to attempt to answer what these two economists cannot or to challenge the data they present.
What I’m more interested in here is an interrogation of the assumption that the women’s movement and feminism’s success can and should be measured in terms of women’s self-reported happiness (I should note that I’m not referring to Stevenson and Wolfer when I say this).
A good place to start is with my beloved grandmother, who got married when she was nineteen and had her first child later that year. My grandmother was financially dependent on my grandfather for the entirety of her adult life. While he worked, she tanned in the backyard, read romance novels, and shopped. The possibility of a different sort of life does not appear to ever have occurred to her, and while I shudder at the thought of such an existence, she seems to have been quite happy with the endless hours of leisure she was afforded. Not all housewives are as, shall we say, idle as my grandmother was (god bless her), and household labor is indeed important, but let’s face it—having a job is more stressful than not needing to have a job. A paying job from which you can get fired is more stressful than making PB&J sandwiches for your kids. Likewise, marrying your first boyfriend at twenty is easier than navigating the world of dating and romance, of hazarding the risk that you might not find someone, at least not for a long time. Autonomy is more taxing than non-autonomy. But is the solution to forgo autonomy? No thank you, not for me.
With freedom comes responsibility, with freedom comes risk.
Sometimes I make good choices, sometimes I make bad ones, but either way, they’re my choices. I’d rather sleep with someone I regret than never sleep with anyone. I’m not going to live my life worried about my future marketability in the marriage market, even if studies show that married people are happier than unmarried people. I’d rather put off marriage and kids in order to complete my education and further my career than put off my education and career for marriage and kids, and no sociological study or New York Times lifestyle piece or Huffington Post confessional is going to convince me that I would do better to just settle for “Mr. Good Enough” by the time I’m thirty than risk becoming an old maid. I’m nobody’s pet. I don’t want or expect to be pampered and spoiled like a lapdog. I’d rather get up early every day and work in a soul-crushing corporate office than depend on some man, no matter how lovely he might be, for money my whole life.
I recognize that a lot of what I’m saying here, especially the stuff about wage labor, applies to a very privileged subset of women. Women of color and women of economically disadvantaged backgrounds (of course, the two overlap quite a bit) reading this piece are probably rolling their eyes and saying, “Our grandmothers always had to work. Do we really need another white feminist think piece about a topic that only the privileged can afford to care about?” And they are right, we don’t. Which leads me to my next point: Can we please, please talk about something else? I’m not saying that happiness isn’t important, but while the non-feminist public is fixated on discussing whether or not the women’s movement failed to make women happier, whatever that even means, women inside the feminist movement are fighting for reproductive freedom, assaults on which have dire consequences for women’s health. They’re exploring the link between neoliberalism and violence against women in Mexico. They’re reading and discussing Audre Lorde, and they’re battling for increased media representation of trans women. They’re fighting important fights and having interesting, nuanced conversations about literally hundreds of worthy, interesting topics.
Forget about “happiness” for a second—-women die from botched abortions in countries where they can’t get them legally. Thank god feminists here and elsewhere commit their lives to the struggle for reproductive rights. Let’s talk about the fact that trans women are murdered at disgustingly high rates. Thank god for the existence of trans feminists like Laverne Cox who work tirelessly to combat transphobia and bring attention to anti-trans hate violence. Feminism is far from perfect, but I contend that the existence of feminists like these makes for a kinder, fairer, better world. If that’s not an indicator of a successful social movement, then I don’t know what is.
The truth is that to be human is to be a little bit unhappy, always, a little bit dissatisfied. Life is sad, and lonely, and we always want something more than what we have. Even the most privileged people on earth are a little bit unhappy. Feminism won’t change that, and nor will any other social movement. The fact that women’s happiness appears to be declining is worth talking about, but I reject the notion that feminism’s success should be judged by that measure alone, and I reject the notion that a simple, stress-free existence is worth the price of freedom.