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Jewesses with Attitude

Blaming the Feminist Revolution for women’s supposed ‘unhappiness’

The results of a General Social Survey, which has been tracking American’s happiness since 1972, have surprised and confused us with their finding that women are growing increasingly unhappy over time. Maureen Dowd’s “Blue is the New Black” editorial in the New York Times has framed these findings in a way that suggests the Feminist Revolution has failed women; that the variety of choices available to women today are responsible for our supposed “unhappiness.” Both the survey and the editorial raise a lot of questions, many of which can only be answered with speculation.

Before we all begin preemptive anti-depressant regimens, let’s remember that statistics like these must always be viewed with a critical eye. The first question that comes to mind is this: do women define happiness the same way today as they did in 1972?  The answer to that question is no. I think Nora Ephron said it best in Crazy Salad (1975):

“We have lived through the era when happiness was a warm puppy, and the era when happiness was a dry martini, and now we have come to the era when happiness is ‘knowing what your uterus looks like.’”

If ‘knowing what your uterus looks like’ defined happiness in 1975, what defines it today? (Actually, that’s a fun question! Leave your answer in the comments.)  To get philosophical for a moment, is happiness ever really attainable? As Beverly Sills said in a 1975 60 Minutes interview, “A happy woman is one who has no cares at all; a cheerful woman is one who has cares but doesn’t let them get her down.” From that perspective, what is the point of trying to measure happiness in the first place?

The survey suggests that while women are increasingly unhappy as they age, men’s happiness actually increases as they get older. Do men and women define happiness differently? Or is there, perhaps, a “language of happiness” that differs for men and women? Could this explain the difference in "happiness reporting?" I do not have the answers to these questions but I do know that a survey that purports to quantify “happiness” is one that must be taken with a grain of salt.

The survey and Dowd’s editorial have got people thinking about the stress of juggling work and home. But is this balancing act really responsible for our alleged “unhappiness?” Were women happier with fewer choices? Debra Nussbaum Cohen hit the nail on the head when she wrote, “It seems, in this study and in Dowd’s column, as if happiness is being confused with ease.” The balance of work and home is not easy and while we are seeing some improvement, the primary housekeeping and care-giving responsibilities are still borne by women. Cohen asks: are women unhappy, or just stressed?

The good news is that this kind of discussion reminds us of the work left to be done in the struggle to achieve true equality. Case in point: the language Dowd uses to describe certain “female” traits.

“Add to this the fact that women are hormonally more complicated and biologically more vulnerable. Women are much harder on themselves than men.

They tend to attach to other people more strongly, beat themselves up more when they lose attachments, take things more personally at work and pop far more anti-depressants.”

These assertions make me question Dowd’s level of understanding when it comes to gender and feminism. How exactly are women “biologically more vulnerable?” Vulnerable to what? I would also like to compare Dowd’s claim that women “take things more personally at work” to a vintage “Guide to Hiring Women” from 1943, which states: “Women are often sensitive; they can't shrug off harsh words the way men do. Never ridicule a woman - it breaks her spirit and cuts off her efficiency.” Finally, the reason women “pop” more anti-depressants could have something to do with the fact that these drugs are marketed primarily to women. Dowd’s statements are hardly “facts,” and she should know better than to casually refer to them as undisputed truths in an editorial about feminism. 

But let’s use common sense here. Even if this “unhappiness” is the result of the choices opened up to women by the Feminist Revolution, do we go back to the way things were? Of course not. Suggesting that the Feminist Revolution is to blame goes on the false assumption that the Feminist Revolution is over. If there is anything to take away from this survey, it is the fact that gender equality has NOT been achieved. Feminism is an ongoing, evolving process, and there is work to be done.

More on: Feminism,

How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "Blaming the Feminist Revolution for women’s supposed ‘unhappiness’ ." 24 September 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 20, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/unhappiness>.

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