Women are unhappy – blame (not patriarchy, but) feminism!

26 05 2009

Earlier today my friend emailed me this op-ed by Ross Douthat from The New York Times.  It’s loaded with standard anti-feminist rhetoric about how “all the achievements of the feminist era may have delivered women to greater unhappiness.”  Riiiiiiiight, Uh-huh.  His opening paragraph:

American women are wealthier, healthier and better educated than they were 30 years ago. They’re more likely to work outside the home, and more likely to earn salaries comparable to men’s when they do. They can leave abusive marriages and sue sexist employers. They enjoy unprecedented control over their own fertility. On some fronts — graduation rates, life expectancy and even job security — men look increasingly like the second sex.

This is horribly oversimplified in so many ways.  For starters, the wage gap still exists, so women are not more likely to earn salaries comparable to men’s.  And how easy is it to leave abusive relationships?  Definitely easier said than done.  Furthermore, sexual harassment in and out of the workplace is a persistent problem that many women constantly put up with but given the court’s unfriendly record towards women, many women do not sue sexist employers.  Do women really “enjoy unprecedented control over their own fertility”?  I would say not exactly, given that abstinence-only sex ed still reigns in this country, and many abortion clinics have had to shut down because of the shitty economy.

The article that Douthat links to?  Not a reputable source.  It’s from Double X and it’s by notorious anti-feminist Christina Hoff Sommers.  I didn’t have the patience to read her article so I just scrolled through it briefly and when I hit the bottom of the page this is what I read:

Why are there no conferences, petitions, workshops, congressional hearings, or presidential councils to help men close the education gap, the health care gap, the insurance gap, the job-loss gap, and the death gap? Because, unlike women, men do not have hundreds of men’s studies departments, research institutes, policy centers, and lobby groups working tirelessly to promote their challenges as political causes.


Her closing paragraph:

The struggle for women’s rights is far from over, but the serious battlegrounds today are in Muslim societies and in sub-Saharan Africa. In these and other parts of the developing world, most women have not yet seen so much as a ripple of freedom, let alone two major waves of liberation. We should be directing our efforts toward the millions of women who have never had the luxury of coping with the problem that has no name.

Condescending much?  Ethnocentric much?  Let us liberated westerners plunge ourselves into the poor “third world” and rescue these oppressed women from their plight!  But I digress…back to Douthat’s op-ed.  In his second paragraph, he writes:

In the 1960s, when Betty Friedan diagnosed her fellow wives and daughters as the victims of “the problem with no name,” American women reported themselves happier, on average, than did men. Today, that gender gap has reversed. Male happiness has inched up, and female happiness has dropped. In postfeminist America, men are happier than women.

First of all, many women who Betty Friedan interviewed and “diagnosed” were educated, bourgeoisie, upper-class, white women who lived in suburbia.  This is not a representative sample of the American female population.   Secondly, many of those women who Friedan interviewed “had it all” – the husband, the big suburban house, the kids.  They weren’t supposed to be unhappy and if they declared that they were, then they were considered crazy.  Thirdly, I’m sick of all these people trying to kill feminism and all this “postfeminist” shit.  Fourth, where did Douthat get his statistics from?  Happiness is such a subjective and abstract measurement.  It’s also not static – people’s happiness levels can fluctuate on a daily basis even.

Douthat then attacks single moms:

The decline of the two-parent family, for instance, is almost certainly depressing life satisfaction for the women stuck raising kids alone. But this can’t be the only explanation, since the trend toward greater female discontent cuts across lines of class and race. A working-class Hispanic woman is far more likely to be a single mother than her white and wealthy counterpart, yet the male-female happiness gap holds in East Hampton and East L.A. alike.

Oh no!  Every kid needs a mother and a father!  So what are we gonna do about kids who only have a mommy?  (Or what about the kids with two mommies and no daddies?  Or two daddies and no mommies?  Ahh!, the world will crumble beneath our feet!)

Then he goes:

Again, maybe the happiness numbers are being tipped downward by a mounting female workload — the famous “second shift,” in which women continue to do the lion’s share of household chores even as they’re handed more and more workplace responsibility. It’s certainly possible — but as Wolfers and Stevenson point out, recent surveys actually show similar workload patterns for men and women over all.

I haven’t read Wolfers and Stevenson’s paper (The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness) that he refers to so I don’t know if Wolfers and Stevenson do argue that recent surveys demonstrate similar workload patterns for men and women.  I also don’t know how valid their claim actually is and how they back it up.  But you gotta love how he just dismisses the whole idea of the second shift (even putting it in quotations as if it’s the so-called thing that people talk about but doesn’t actually exist).  Housework is gendered and there’s been feminist scholarship on the sexual division of household labor.

Douthat then reiterates classic stereotypes about women and femininity:

Or perhaps the problem is political — maybe women prefer egalitarian, low-risk societies, and the cowboy capitalism of the Reagan era had an anxiety-inducing effect on the American female. But even in the warm, nurturing, egalitarian European Union, female happiness has fallen relative to men’s across the last three decades.

Yeah…women are extremely cautious and don’t like taking risks – we need warmth and nurture, the Reagan Administration was too manly for women to handle so we all developed anxiety problems, the EU is oh-so-glorious, blahblahblah.  He then goes on to write:

[Conservatives and liberals] should also be able to agree that the steady advance of single motherhood threatens the interests and happiness of women. Here the public-policy options are limited; some kind of social stigma is a necessity. But a new-model stigma shouldn’t (and couldn’t) look like the old sexism. There’s no necessary reason why feminists and cultural conservatives can’t join forces — in the same way that they made common cause during the pornography wars of the 1980s — behind a social revolution that ostracizes serial baby-daddies and trophy-wife collectors as thoroughly as the “fallen women” of a more patriarchal age.

No reason, of course, save the fact that contemporary America doesn’t seem willing to accept sexual stigma, period. We simply don’t have the stomach for permanently ostracizing the sexually irresponsible — be they a pregnant starlet, a thrice-divorced tycoon, or even a prostitute-hiring politician.

In this sense, ours is a kinder, gentler, more forgiving country than it was 40 years ago. But for half the public, it’s an unhappier country as well.

Okay, wow, let’s break down that mumble-jumble heap of garbage:

1. Asserting that single motherhood threatens the interests and happiness of women adds to the discrimination and stigma against single moms and further elevates the heterosexual nuclear family.  “Some kind of social stigma is a necessity” only to maintain the discrimination against single moms and continue to over-privilege the nuclear family.  It’s a method of social control that continues disenfranchising single moms.

2. I am not aware that “old sexism” is antiquated and therefore nonexistent.

3. The pornography war of the 1980s is not yet over.  There is still much debate within the feminist community about pornography.

4. Terms like “Baby-daddies” and “trophy-wife collectors” are loaded with heterosexual, upper-class, white male privilege.

5. The whole idea of the “fallen woman” is antiquated, just like “old sexism” and patriarchy.  You’ve got to be kidding.

6. America is unwilling to accept sexual stigma?  Have you been living under a rock?!  Pregnant teenage celebrities, Jamie-Lynn Spears and even Bristol Palin (not quite a celebrity, but still), instantly became the center of attention and  made headlines everywhere immediately after people found out that they were pregnant.  (How dare teenagers have sex?!)  How many times have there been magazine headlines about poor poor Jennifer Aniston, who’s still single?  Sex scandals involving high profile politicians also always make the news.  So exactly how is contemporary America unwilling to accept sexual stigma, unwilling to “permanently ostracize the sexually irresponsible”?  And how exactly  are we “kinder, gentler and more forgiving”?

7. The “kinder, gentler and more forgiving” argument also makes no sense because then his argument is that because America is a “kinder, gentler and more forgiving” nation now than it was historically, women are unhappier?  Say what?!

So what has reading Douthat’s op-ed shown me?  Not that women are “liberated and unhappy”, but rather Douthat does not know a single thing about feminism and why it’s still relevant.  What also perplexes me is that if feminism is making women unhappy and men happier, why are antifeminist men complaining about it?



4 responses

27 05 2009
Joy Rose

You GO Girl – From one proud feminist Mom to another… Your articulate exploration of all current issues is appreciated!
Joy Rose

27 05 2009
The Conversation Continues for Feminists & Society At Large « Live Loud! www.mamapalooza.com

[…] I could go on forever but want to pass the baton to the gender bender blog today for some interesting thoughts HERE. […]

18 09 2009
Help Is On The Way For Unhappy Women « Happily Bitter

[…] overwhelming majority of feminist bloggers were fairly vocal about the flaws they saw in the premise of the paper – the premise that women […]

18 09 2009
Help On The Way For Unhappy Women « Happily Bitter

[…] overwhelming majority of feminist bloggers were fairly vocal about the flaws they saw in the premise of the paper – the premise that women […]

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