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Feminism hasn’t made women happier. What will?

Categories: Your life


I was catching up on some online reading (aka procrastinating at work, which I try not to do but can’t help at times) and came across this article about some new research about women’s happiness.

According to the new research paper, titled The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness, the lives of women in the US have improved significantly during the past 35 years but women are less happy today than in the past. And not only are women less happy but they are also less happy than men, whose happiness level has been rising over the past several decades. There are likely many reasons for the decline in happiness as more and more women have gone into the workforce, but the fact that working women are also handling a huge amount of responsibilities at home — and are thus working two shifts instead of one — is a major contributor.

It’s a new paper, but the findings aren’t new — I searched through the archives and found a blog post I wrote in response to some similar research, titled Has feminism failed to make women happier? But this topic really bugs me, mostly because it’s really personal and I don’t know what the answer is.

As a modern, working woman, who has, for many years, been either the primary or equal breadwinner in my household and who, as some would say, wears the pants in the family (honey, if you’re reading this, nod in agreement), I am in an ongoing struggle to not less the daily stress, anxiety, and just the sheer amount of work and to-dos reduce my happiness level to zero. And I’m here to tell you that it’s really hard and on many days I don’t succeed. (On those days I have these fantasies about how my life would be so much easier if either I didn’t have to work full-time or we had a lot more money so we could afford more help around the house. In this I’m not alone — according to one survey, only 18% of women want to work full-time and most prefer that their husband make 2/3 or more of the family income.)

Thing is, I’m not sure what the answer is. I like to work and I can’t imagine being a stay-at-home mom and wife, at least not full-time. (.(There is also enough research to suggest that stay-at-home moms may not be as happy as working moms.)¬†And I would NEVER argue that the opportunities that have opened up for women during the last 30+ years aren’t a sign of amazing progress and are moving our society in the right direction. But being a working mom is insanely stressful and stress has an uncanny way of reducing our happiness.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your perspectives on this topic — sound off in the comments!

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9 comments so far...

  • I think that women have done it to themselves - and I don’t think it’s “feminism” that has made women less happy. First and foremost, let me be clear - I am not a feminist. I am an equalist and many of the most ardent and vocal feminists in this day are not. For the last decade, I have been the only female in my place of work. My career is not one that lends itself to many women wanting to join on - or being able to accomplish the training (females have a high wash-out rate).

    In spite of that, I do my work and do it well and have never had any issues because of my gender (except from other females in the larger organization!).

    That being said, the feminist message I always received, especially in my later high school and college years, was that in order for women to truly be “free”, they must shed all vesitges of what has defined women and that includes caring for homes and families. In fact, being a working mother did not fit into this organized view of the feminism I was preached because it meant that you were a) Working for The Man and b) Falling into a stereotype of being a breeder and a mother that did not break the mold.

    Most women, however, have not done that. They’ve taken on both roles and if you check out or even the Child Caring section on, you’ll find that the overwhelming majority of posters on controversial topics (such as reverse role child care) are women who don’t believe that their own husbands are capable of meeting their own standards when it comes to giving care and assisting around the house.

    As long as women want to completely control their household in the more traditional role AND get out and work, they’re probably not going to be happy.

    Let me say now, in light of this anecdotal evidence, I have found myself increasingly feeling lucky. Yes, working full time (and two part time jobs) and being an engaged mother to our daughter is exhausting and not always fulfilling, but I don’t have to worry too much about coming home to utter and complete chaos. We have two cats, one dog, one too-smart-for-anyone’s-good 14 month old, so chaos is going to be a given to a certain degree, but the house is generally clean, there’s usually a load or two of laundry going - and our car will always be fixed when needed, thanks to a stay at home husband who believes in making something nice for me to come home to - as well as maintaining his mechanics skills for the eventual day he does return to the work force. In other words, while it may not be my standard of squeaky cleanliness sometimes or while the baby may be running around in an unsnapped onesie in the house, I realized from day one that, hey, it’s not “my” house and it’s not “my” child. It’s ours. And since I work out of the house and don’t provide the care, it’s not “my” place to direct and micro-manage how the person who stays home each day should do those things. That’s his daytime turf, this office and base and everything I do here is my daytime turf.

    When I get home at night, I’ll pick up what he couldn’t get done because keeping up with and taking care of two cats, 1 dog and 1 too-smart-for-anyone’s-good 14 month old can be considered several full time jobs in and of themselves and it’s OK if there’s dishes on the sink or crumbs on the floor. I’ll get them.

    No, we have definitely done it to ourselves by being a general lot of control freaks who basically think that men aren’t capable and don’t give them a chance to do it their own way to begin with. I’m not surprised at this finding at all. Look - you want equality, be ready to give it too.

    Phe  |  June 12th, 2009 at 6:19 am

  • I think that until it becomes socially expected and accepted (including in the workplace) that a man with a family has as much responsibility for childcare, cooking, cleaning, birthday parties, social obligations, etc, as his wife, it’s going to continue to be very difficult to have really equal levels work and home responsibilities, and women will continue to get the stressed end of the stick.

    Emily  |  June 12th, 2009 at 8:21 am

  • Nataly -

    Honestly, I think happiness is a choice. One you have to constantly choose to make. And to do that you need to figure out when to ask for help, when to demand it and when to say “no.” I also think you need to be honest with yourself and others. Enough of the “isn’t motherhood great” thing when there are moments when it simply isn’t great! And to admit that is honest and it’s okay…if we admit that to ourselves and each other, and our husbands the world will not end, our kids will not hate us and our work will not suffer.

    I think the reason women are unhappy is that they’re simply not honest with themselves or each other. Stop trying to do it all - ask for help, outsource as needed, call on your village and be honest…some days work and motherhood and life is just not fun. It’s okay to admit that, talk about, share and learn from each other about this…instead of trying to put on the “everything is great” face.

    Leanne Chase  |  June 12th, 2009 at 9:13 am

  • Feminism has made me a whole lot happier. And I am happy, in general.

    Please note that the report does NOT say that feminism is to blame, only speculates.

    Robyn  |  June 12th, 2009 at 9:18 am

  • I agree that happiness is a choice. But that choice requires the individual to be cognizant of what his choices and his true reality are.

    Many women haven’t emotionally caught up with the positive changes brought about by feminism. (Not all of the changes are positive, but some are.) The whole premise of giving women more choices about how to live their lives is: women are remarkably flexible, adaptable, strong. They don’t need to fit into a mold because they can do everything they “need” to do while still living their unique dreams to some extent. (Some women have always managed to do this, by the way, without the “aid” of the feminist movement.) So now that women have both the right and the duty to chart their own paths, many aren’t ready to do it. They haven’t cleared their minds, meditated on their strengths and principles, and built their life strategy from the ground up. They have listened to others, chosen impossible role models, and been too ready to accept the excuses that continue to be offered by the feminist movement - my dad didn’t encourage me, my boss doesn’t respect me, my husband won’t pick up his socks, etc., how am I supposed to be a success? Blah! Throw out all that negative baggage and start fresh.

    The feminist movement works against women in several ways. One is that their rhetoric is nearly always negative, defensive, attacking, cynical. They basically tell women that it’s not time to be happy yet, because oh my, some state just passed a law requiring 13-year-olds to inform their parents if they have an abortion, next thing you know the government is going to force us all to be full-time breeders. And oh, how terrible that the local high school doesn’t have a girls’ football team. They do not want us to be happy with the status quo, because if we were, then they would not be necessary! So for women who eagerly listen to their rhetoric, they can’t be happy even if their lives are objectively better than that of both their mother and their father.

    Personally, I don’t believe it’s the objective amount of work that women do that makes us happy or unhappy. I’ve always been happiest when busiest. I think it’s the context and our attitudes. If I have all the responsibilities regarding my home and my kids, I am totally fine with that; in fact, I feel great about it. I do a darn good job. Now, if I was measuring what I do, minute for minute, against what some man was doing, I can guarantee that would chip away at my happiness, even if he in fact was relieving me of some of my work. That’s 100% attitude. Attitude is a choice.

    Considering the whole feminist movement has been said to be about “choices,” it would be great if women actually recognized and owned their choices. Let’s make an effort to help our daughters understand this as they grow.

    SKL  |  June 12th, 2009 at 10:46 am

  • There’s a very real phenomenon about how having MORE choices sometimes makes people (in general) more stressed, anxious, and unhappy. Some social science research suggests that may be going on for women. Sure, now we can “have it all”–great progress, right?–only that brings along its own brand of pressure and stress: to achieve the marriage, family, home, AND career accomplishments open to us. Rather than feel happy to have so many options, many women simply feel even more stress to get it all right, do it all well, and do it all, period. That can lead to unhappiness. I don’t know what the answer is, except, as others have suggested, a more egalitarian world where men are expected to do just as much as women in the spheres of home and family.

    Shannon  |  June 12th, 2009 at 12:44 pm

  • Figure 1 in the paper shows results from the General Social Survey. The authors say: “The top lines show that in the 1970’s women were more likely than men to report being ‘very happy’, while this differential began to evaporate in the 1980s.”

    Although this is true, Figure 1 shows that the year-to-year variation in the results for women, and in the results for men, is a lot larger than the differences between men and women! The line for men and the line for women cross over and cross back again and again. Eyeballing the graph, the ranges look like:

    Years Men Women
    1973 - 1980 .32 - .35 .35 - .42
    1980 - 1990 .32 - .36 .32 - .38
    1990 - 2000 .30 - .32 .30 - .36
    2000 - 2007 .33 - .35 .31 - .35

    The authors say: “The bottom two lines show that in the 1970’s men and women were roughly equally likely to report being ‘not too happy’, and a gap emerges in the 1990s with women more likely than men to report unhappiness.”

    Although this is true, the “gap” in the 1990’s is very, very tiny. And it’s not consistent: in 2002, many more women were ‘not too happy’ than men, and in 2004 the situation is exactly reversed! In the last year for which they have data, 2007, the numbers are exactly equal for men and women.

    The paper absolutely does not show that these changes are because of feminism, and it certainly does not show that women would have been happier had there been less feminism.

    Discussing the data, the authors say: “Rather than immediately inferring that the women’s movement failed to improve the lot of women, we conclude with a simple taxonomy for organizing alternative explanations of this paradox…. First, there may be other important socio-economic forces that have made women worse off….The second possibility is that broad social shifts such as those brought on by the changing role of women in society fundamentally alter what measures of subjective well-being are capturing…. Women may now feel more comfortable being honest about their true happiness and have thus deflated their previously inflated responses. Or, as in Kahneman’s example, the increased opportunities available to women may have increased what women require to declare themselves happy.”

    The earlier parts of the paper consider even more possibilities, and the authors recognize that it’s very hard to pull apart all the different ways of interpreting the data.

    – Dan

    Daniel Weinreb  |  June 12th, 2009 at 8:04 pm

  • Well, honestly, i think happiness has little to do with working or not working or feminist or whatever. It has to do with making choices and taking the responsibility to be happy.

    As women, we tend to look at happiness as forever on the horizon ‘if i can lose 10lbs i will be happy” “if i get this promotion i will be happy” and of course even when we reach those goals we set new ones and decide we wont be happy until we reach them. I am all for setting goals and accomplishing them - but tying them to my happiness today? why?

    I find people tend to think I am nuts because I am pretty happy and point out the little good things often overlooked! how is this nuts? Look for your happiness every day! Sometimes it’s a little thing like taking a walk at lunch and other times it’s a big thing - like a new car! or whatever :)

    I know i am not alone in this thought (yay!) and i am thinking you will see an uptick in the next 10 years of people realizing they ARE happy - they just forgot to notice… :)

    kate  |  June 12th, 2009 at 10:24 pm

  • I am 53…I remember enough of the pre women’s movement days. Nobody should ever think that the old ways were good for women.
    The reason the woman’s movement happened at all was because of the overwhelming number of deeply unhappy women. They were fed up, angry and tired of the limitations. It did not happen because a few outspoken females made speeches or wrote books. It happened because everyday women, everywhere wanted and needed it. They were unhappy…so things finally changed.

    To compare “happiness” for those women from the past and the women today is apples and oranges. And if today’s women become so truly unhappy with the way things are they’ll change again…but I don’t think it will ever revert to those “good old days”.

    Tina  |  June 14th, 2009 at 1:45 am