52 comments for “Does Feminism Make Women Unhappy?

  1. Nate Oman
    March 7, 2006 at 8:30 pm

    Very interesting. The question I had, which was not answered by the article, is whether or not “traditional” marriage also correlates strongly with membership in some sort of integrated community (like a church). In other words, it may be that it is not so much the traditionalism that makes women happy as the presence of supporting peers, and progressives are simply more likely to be isolated. Perhaps the study itself addresses this point. It makes intuitive sense to me that traditionalism would be correlated with social integration which would be correlated with happiness. The question would then be whether or not socially integrated progressives — perhaps Unitarians — are happier than their poorly integrated progressive peers.

  2. Kaimi Wenger
    March 7, 2006 at 9:02 pm

    Quick suggestion: Some recent bloggernacle links may also be relevant to the discussion. E.g., Naiah on whether feminism is still needed, and Dave on gender essentialism.

  3. TMD
    March 7, 2006 at 9:59 pm

    There’s also the potentially confounding fact that, as George Will has recently drawn attention to, those of the left are in general less happy than those of the right. So, maybe it’s being “progressive” that makes one unhappy, and feminism is a canard in the mix, though one perhaps with some degree of correlation.

  4. Jeremiah J.
    March 7, 2006 at 10:10 pm

    I’m wouldn’t be surprised at all if feminism makes women unhappy. I’m not surprised, in part because I think feminism has a core of irreducible truth to it (it’s not a happy truth). The other part of my un-surprise is due to the fact that Betty Friedan’s “having it all” never struck me as much of a solution to the problems feminists identify, much less a formula for happiness.

    I heard something similar about progressives in general a while ago–“you’re less happy than we are; we must be right about everything.” But bearers of new moral truth are not usually walking on the ground of happiness. Continual frustration isn’t evidence of anything necessarily, but neither is happiness.

    p.s. I honestly have no idea what DKL is saying re: “gender essentialism”.

  5. Jeremiah J.
    March 7, 2006 at 10:14 pm

    Thanks for finding the reference re: progressives, TMD. Will can’t be the thoughtful, eloquent voice of conservatism all the time. Every few months he has to go on vacation and phone it in.

  6. Nate Oman
    March 7, 2006 at 10:20 pm

    “–you’re less happy than we are; we must be right about everything.”

    No. Just more things… ;->

  7. Kirsten M. Christensen
    March 7, 2006 at 10:26 pm

    I’d have to agree with TMD and Nate that there are probably more factors at play here than just feminism and traditionalism. There is something to the dilemma of choice and the isolation that feminists sometimes feel, which is still not to say that feminism is the cause of unhappiness.

    I know a lot of unhappy feminists. I also know plenty of unhappy traditionalists (although I’m not convinced that it’s as clear a term as the study seems to imply). My vote goes towards finding ways to help everyone and every marriage find the integration and support that appear to be markers of success, rather than on declaring, denigrating or dismissing either group or leaning as an inherent cause of unhappiness.

  8. MullingandMusing (M&M)
    March 7, 2006 at 10:31 pm

    I particularly liked the paragraph that contained the following:

    In other words, their goal has stayed the same (that is, maintaining traditional marriage roles), but they can pursue it under much less draconian circumstances. No wonder they’re happier. They’re free-riders on the women’s movement (though they’d deny it), whereas feminists have descended into a tangle of second guesses and contradictions.”

    Kinda made me smile.

    I think this is a great time to be a woman, although difficult, too, if you accept still-prophetically-supported traditional roles…makes all the options out there tough sometimes when you are still at home…almost a sort of siren song that is pushed away by the “time and season” poetry of Ecclesiastes. But it does leave some options available that weren’t so OK before…like working part-time when kiddies are napping or something like that. In addition, women are consistently encouraged to seek education and to keep skills current (see even the latest leadership broadcast).

  9. MullingandMusing (M&M)
    March 7, 2006 at 10:36 pm

    p.s. Here’s another more blunt, definitely one-sided article, but interesting to throw out there….


  10. Nate Oman
    March 7, 2006 at 10:37 pm

    Perhaps their is a self-selection issue as well. To the extent that progressive feminism paints a dreary picture of the lot of women (Jeremiah’s hard truth) it may be that it is simply more appealing to those who are already prone to be unhappy. I can think of any number of people — men and women — who have deep unhappiness ostensibly due to ideological factors, which is — I suspect — probably chemical in origin.

  11. March 7, 2006 at 11:01 pm

    The article didn’t take into account the propensity of humans to lie. The sort of women who feel the need to accept traditional gender roles, might also be the sort who feel a need to meet expectations. One of those expectations might be ‘being happy.” I know that I often feel the need to report being happy even if it isn’t strictly true. I would guess that most self declaring feminists just don’t feel that need.

  12. Nate Oman
    March 7, 2006 at 11:09 pm

    Starfoxy: Why wouldn’t self-declared feminists feel a need to report happiness in order to meet Friedan’s expectation that “having it all’ will make them happy?

  13. Edje
    March 7, 2006 at 11:21 pm

    More info:

    The report cited in Slate: “What’s Love Got To Do With It? Equality, Equity, Commitment and Women’s Marital Quality”

    A report by one of the same authors emphasizing the perceptions of “progressiveâ€? women: “New Institutional Perspectives On Marriage in Late Modernity” (I’m betting that when Ms. O’Rourke cites an “analysis that has been provided exclusively to Slate” she means that Wilcox took the data used for this report, divided it into “progressiveâ€? and “not progressiveâ€? subpopulations [arbitrarily choosing 15% as the magic number], and reported the results as percentages of each subpopulation, e.g., “only 45 percent of the most progressive-minded homemakers considered themselves happy,â€? rather than as correlation coefficients for the whole sample.)

    The UVA press-release with links to both articles: “University of Virginia Study Finds Commitment to Marriage, Emotional Engagement Key to Wives’ Happiness”

  14. March 7, 2006 at 11:25 pm

    A very interesting article, and everyone has made good and ponderable points. I have nothing academic to add, however I do have the personal perspective of having been on both extremes the study cites.

    Once I was a raging (forgive the choice of words, but it’s true) Northern California Feminist. Everywhere I looked, inequality smacked me in the face, and I fought it with all I had. The kicker was, I always found exactly what I was looking for. When your focus is on seeking out and exposing perceived injustice and “inequality”, you will never fail- you can find it where, in objective truth, it might not exist. So when the focus of your life is on looking for draconian repression, it is hard to just be happy. Even it you found yourself feeling happy, reminding oneself of the repression of others quickly innoculates you with some guilt and you return to the angry comfort that familiarity breeds. I did not read this- I actually lived it- as did most of the women with whom I was friends.

    Gradually I figured out that this ideology was not for me, and I found myself drifting more towards figuring out what “I” actually felt- rather than what the books and magazines told me I should feel. Over the course of years, I have come around to a place of comfort and happiness, through trial and error, to a fairly traditional role.

    Men are not, and never were the source of my unhappiness. Rather, the focus that I gave my life was the source of my unhappiness- the responsibility lied with me, no one else. That can be an uncomfortable mirror to look in.

    The place I find myself now is very comfortable- I have nothing to prove, and my most important focus is on my family, not looking for outside scapegoats for personal, civil, spiritual and societal unrest. Am I reaping the bennefits and catching a free-ride on the coat-tails of the Freidan’s and the Steinem’s? I can’t say for sure, but I don’t believe so.

    Do I hold the ideal that men and women are equal? Absolutely, unequivacabley, yes. But here is where I depart my old Feminist beliefs- We are equal, but we are NOT the same. Societally and interpersonally, we all have strenghts and weaknesses. I do not need to be able to do everything my husband can do (nor he what I can do) to know that I am his equal in every way. And I would never deparage the fine man I married by comparing his usefulness to a “fish without a bicycle.” That belittles us all.

    It boils down to this: If you are looking, you will find it. Seems to be the theme of the day…

  15. Liz O.
    March 7, 2006 at 11:27 pm

    Could it just be as simple as “Thou shalt not covet…”?

    Whatever philosophy whispers “what you have/get/do/be isn’t enough,” whether it is a version of feminism or something else, is going to lead to unhappiness.

  16. Edje
    March 7, 2006 at 11:29 pm

    [How long after something disappears into cyberspace should one wait before reposting the vanished comment?]

    Some more info:

    The report cited in Slate: “What’s Love Got To Do With It? Equality, Equity, Commitment and Women’s Marital Quality”

    A report by one of the same authors emphasizing the perceptions of “progressiveâ€? women: “New Institutional Perspectives On Marriage in Late Modernity” (I’m betting that when Ms. O’Rourke cites an “analysis that has been provided exclusively to Slate” she means that Wilcox took the data used for this report, divided it into “progressiveâ€? and “not progressiveâ€? subpopulations [arbitrarily choosing 15% as the magic number], and reported the results as percentages of each subpopulation, e.g., “only 45 percent of the most progressive-minded homemakers considered themselves happy,â€? rather than as correlation coefficients for the whole sample.)

    The UVA press-release where I found both articles: “University of Virginia Study Finds Commitment to Marriage, Emotional Engagement Key to Wives’ Happiness”

  17. March 7, 2006 at 11:32 pm

    I would think that most self-declaring feminists don’t think that they are really ‘having it all’ yet. I would guess that they still see too much sexism, and boundaries to have met that goal yet.

  18. Tatiana
    March 7, 2006 at 11:39 pm

    You know, freedom just makes slaves unhappy, too. They were much better off when they didn’t have the concerns and worries of the world on their heads, when they were being cared for by their loving masters.

    Adulthood makes children unhappy too. Gone are the idyllic days of carefree play. Let’s all stay children forever!

    Education just makes ignorant people unhappy, too. Reading should be banned!

  19. Jeremiah J.
    March 7, 2006 at 11:50 pm

    “No. Just more things… ;->”

    Know that I’m shaking my virtual fist at you Oman!

    I find it plausible that progressives are slightly less happy on the whole (though the study Will cited was I think a 45-35%, a mere 10% difference). Then again it was self-reported and I wouldn’t be surprised if 10% more conservatives think they have a moral duty to be happy.

  20. March 8, 2006 at 12:57 am

    “They’re free-riders on the women’s movement.”

    This writer wasn’t biased, no, not in the least. And I’ve just gotta love Tatiana’s implication that the happy non-progressive moms out there are ignorant. You do realize that this is why the feminist movement has foundered. United we stand, divided we fall and for twenty or so years we’ve been divided into camps who look down on each other and call those who should be our natural allies deluded or misled.

    Wasn’t the feminist movement about the right to CHOOSE our paths? You want to be a C.E.O. Fine, that’s your choice. Have fun. I however, seem to have been born with a bit of the spirit of Hestia and can think of no greater calling and nothing I’d rather do than to raise and nurture a righteous family. I finished university; I have a degree. I taught English as a Second Language for three years in a foriegn country. I am NOT ignorant; I just have different goals than you. If you want me to respect your goals, how about dredging up a little respect for mine?

  21. MullingandMusing (M&M)
    March 8, 2006 at 12:13 am

    re: post #13! Tracy, excellent post! Thank you for sharing. I have done this in relationships where I have a chip on my shoulder and suddenly nearly every action of the other person substantiates my ill will. I am also seeing this phenomenon in a friend of mine who is doubting the veracity of the LDS Church. Doesn’t seem to matter what I say…the only things that stick in her mind are those that substantiate and thus perpetuate her doubts. Takes a significant degree of self-awareness and sensitivity to catch one’s self in such a trap. The truth really does make us free!

  22. Nate Oman
    March 8, 2006 at 12:16 am

    Jeremiah: I suspect that there is also a White House effect in such studies. No doubt there were more miserable conservative when Clinton was in the White House…

  23. Jeremiah J.
    March 8, 2006 at 12:21 am

    “Do I hold the ideal that men and women are equal? Absolutely, unequivacabley, yes. But here is where I depart my old Feminist beliefs- We are equal, but we are NOT the same.”

    Many bona fide feminists would say the same thing. Others decry this kind of thinking as selling out to the patrirachy. All feminists can agree on, it often seems, is that it’s all screwed up and women and girls get the worst of it. Which is a big reason why, I think, it’s a deeply troubling message, more troubling than other hard, unpleasant teachings which nevertheless have a hopeful side. Luckily for Christians, we really only started reflecting on how depraved the world is after we already understood that the Savior had already come.

  24. Jeremiah J.
    March 8, 2006 at 12:35 am

    “I suspect that there is also a White House effect in such studies. No doubt there were more miserable conservatives when Clinton was in the White House…”

    Nate: Exactly what I was thinking when I heard of the study! In fact I thought that progressives should be ashamed that a third of us are still happy. What with all our hemming and hollering about the war, the end of all freedom, Bush screwing up everything, and we being the party of the oppressed to boot, you’d think that we would be way behind the rich, beautiful, popular and politically powerful as far as joy goes. On the other hand one can never underestimate the capacity for sourness of conservatives like Bill O’Reilly, who can’t sleep at night because there are no-life bloggers out there spending their days making fun of him (who, in his words, “have done great harm to America”). Throw in the fact that the actual policies of conservatives aren’t working very well right now, politically or substantively. See, we all have something to gripe about!–which is another notable fact about a study in which neither the left nor the right can break 50% happiness.

  25. Mark IV
    March 8, 2006 at 12:39 am

    Question: How often do you get to tell somebody as smart as Nate that he is wrong?

    Answer: Not very often.

    Conclusion: Make hay while the sun shines. NATE OMAN, YOU ARE WRONG!!!

    Quoting the Will column: “Election results do not explain this happiness gap. Republicans have been happier than Democrats every year since the survey began in 1972. Married people and religious people are especially disposed to happiness, and both cohorts vote more conservatively than does the nation as a whole.”

    Julie, I’m not sure I buy the results of the study. It has the appearance of a conclusion in search of supporting data.

    Finally, this part made me laugh out loud:

    “The study’s authors, W. Bradford Wilcox and Steven Nock, speculate that fault-finding on the part of wives makes it hard for men to do the emotional work that stabilizes marriages. Meanwhile, traditionalist women—a significant portion of whom are Christian—expect less emotional work from their husbands, Wilcox and Nock speculate, which makes it easier for them to shake off frustrations, and less likely to nag.”

    It isn’t easy to insult both men and women at the same time, but there you go.

  26. Nate Oman
    March 8, 2006 at 12:41 am

    “…rich, beautiful, popular and politically powerful…”

    Yup. That’s me. Especially the beautiful part…

    Jeremiah, if it is any consolation, I feel sorry for you ;->.

  27. Nate Oman
    March 8, 2006 at 12:46 am

    “Election results do not explain this happiness gap. Republicans have been happier than Democrats every year since the survey began in 1972.”

    I am not convinced by Will’s logic. The GOP has won 6 of the 9 presidential elections since 1972. Furthermore, one must factor in the fact that one of the Democratic “victories” was Carter, and the other was Clinton’s 1996 victory which largely consisted of Clinton out-Gingriching Gingrich and the House GOP. That leaves Dems with the 1992 election, which was really a triumph for a third-way, DLC-brand of Democrat whose relationship to true blue progressives is ambigious at best. In other words, if you are committed leftie it has basically been a pretty sorry White House since Kennedy, perhaps Truman…

  28. Jeremiah J.
    March 8, 2006 at 1:06 am

    “Jeremiah, if it is any consolation, I feel sorry for you ;->.”

    Don’t worry; I’m one of those 35% or whatever of leftists who are, quite shamefully, happy. I’m very bitter about it, too. Then again in one case since 72 I took Will’s advice and voted for the joy ticket. Those were the sweet years…

  29. Sideshow
    March 8, 2006 at 1:12 am

    PDOE #25: I don’t think Tatiana was implying that happy non-progressive moms are ignorant, I think she was implying that the process of growth and development isn’t comfortable, and it can be hard to figure out how to be happy in a different state of being than you were before.

  30. Nate Oman
    March 8, 2006 at 1:17 am

    Sideshow: I don’t know. PDOE’s reading of Tatiania doesn’t strike me as unreasonable, although to be sure Tatiania was a bit elliptical. Still, all of the happy people in her comment are slaves, children, or ignorant.

  31. March 8, 2006 at 1:42 am

    I think PDOE and Nate probably read Tatiana right. Reminds me of the DMI Dave’s recent retelling of “The Story of the Good Brahmin”.

  32. MullingandMusing (M&M)
    March 8, 2006 at 2:47 am

    Being relatively new to this forum, I realized I may have made an error in posting a link directly. Apologies…I don’t remember reading something about that in the posting policies, but will check again. Is HTML used to post links, or is there another secret (or is that in the policies)?
    Sorry for the off-topic questions….

  33. Rosalynde Welch
    March 8, 2006 at 3:09 am

    The question (and the study in question) can easily be misconstrued to ask whether feminism has made women’s lives objectively better, rather than simply whether feminism has made women (un)happier. But there’s pretty good evidence that the two questions are less closely related than one might suspect: while increasing prosperity in the Western world has pretty clearly made many people’s lives objectively better, for example, it has had almost no effect on their overall happiness. The booming self-improvement industry aside, most of the recent research on happiness that I’ve seen suggests, as have previous commenters, that most people in ordinary circumstances have set levels of happiness extremely resistant to changes in circumstance or belief. I doubt, then, that feminism has significantly influenced the happiness of an appreciable segment of women. As for whether it has made women’s lives objectively better, well, I think it has, for a small subset of women, among whom I count myself—though it may have squandered hard-earned cultural capital on narrow causes that might have been spent in the service of a much broader cohort of women. And regardless of its objective effect on the lives of women, feminism’s effect on the objective well-being of men and children, and on the health of society generally, is an open question—one that may have disquieting answers for feminists.

    But if feminism does, in fact, have a treatment effect on women’s happiness—that is, if feminists are made unhappy by their feminism—I’d bet that the effect comes from precisely where we’d least expect it: the ideal of choice. I think comment #25 nicely summarizes a popular current view of what feminism is: an activist initiative aiming to make available to women a broad range of lifestyle choices, from which each woman chooses the one she most prefers like a pair of shoes from the rack. But when choice is provided in a largely value-free context, the result is not empowerment or happiness but paralysis, anxiety, dissatisfaction, and endless second-guessing. Or at least that’s what this guy, Barry Schwartz, argues, and I think his argument makes a lot of sense.

  34. Kaimi Wenger
    March 8, 2006 at 4:19 am

    Sorry bout that, edge. Our robot spam-filter flagged your comment as likely spam. I released it when I saw it in the cage.

  35. Tatiana
    March 8, 2006 at 7:24 am

    I was certainly not insulting stay at home moms! Far from it! It boggles me that I could be construed that way.

  36. Edje
    March 8, 2006 at 7:55 am

    Thanks, Kaimi (#34, 13, 16).

    It appears that with two tries I still managed to botch the links; I’m going to go sacrifice a hamster to the cyber-demons and try again next month.

  37. March 8, 2006 at 8:50 am

    14 well said.

    What is left out of both lines of argument are the strange ways that rising expectations play into happiness. The sexual revolution tried to free women and men from set-in-stone roles. But the irony turns out to be that having a degree of certainty about what you want (and being in a peer group that feels the same way) is helpful in making people happy.


    The study’s authors, W. Bradford Wilcox and Steven Nock, speculate that fault-finding on the part of wives makes it hard for men to do the emotional work that stabilizes marriages.

    Not exactly fault finding, but Dr. Suzette Haden Elgin (a serious progressive/liberal) has advice to women about dealing with men who are doing emotional work or who are sharing, and much of that is not jumping in with both feet whenever a guy opens up. That tends to close them back up again. “Traditionalists” are more likely to let a guy open up … that is different from nagging, but similar.

    (btw, you can visit her live journal at http://ozarque.livejournal.com/ ).

  38. Mathew
    March 8, 2006 at 12:37 pm

    I won’t speak for women, but as a man I have to say that many of the fruits of feminism have made me happy.

    I’m happy that four of my sisters can work as professionals and no one bats an eye. I’m happy that four of my sisters have had children and three of their companies worked hard to find ways to help them balance work and children. I’m happy that two of my sisters’ husbands have adopted progressive American attitudes towards the role of women in the home rather than retain the more traditional attitudes of their countries of origin because both of those sisters hate to cook. I’m happy that little stigma attached to one sister when she divorced. I’m happy all five of my sisters can pray in sacrament meeting.

    I’m happy my wife, unlike Sandra Day O’Connor, could find a job at a private firm upon her graduation from law school (though O’Connor was offered a job as a legal secretary). I’m happy Gigi is compensated at the same rate as her colleagues.

    I’m happy my daughter will have both challenges and opportunities her great-grandmother couldn’t fathom.

  39. bbell
    March 8, 2006 at 1:21 pm

    I personally like belonging to a church that teaches that SAHM is the ideal situation for mothers. Its nice to see non LDS research backing this up.

    Prophets right all along? A long list from GBH to ETB to SWK back to McKay have taught SAHM as the ideal. It appears that they were right??? and I am happy about that.

    Imagine that. Prophets being right about what family structure is best…..

  40. DKL
    March 8, 2006 at 1:29 pm

    Of course, if you tell people that they are supposed to be unhappy, then they often will be. A common criticism of religion is that it teaches people that they should be miserable (thanks to guilt). It’s surprising to me that several major approaches to feminism aren’t criticized more often for encouraging women to be miserable (I’m thinking primarily of the dominant strains of cultural/liberal feminism, radical feminism, and marxist feminism). This is, for example, one of the criticisms that I offer in my recent post on feminism. I’m not saying that we should tell people to be happy no matter what–a certain amount of realism is required to get by in life. But part of that realism is recognizing which grievances are worth bemoaning and which ones aren’t; I think that many schools of feminism do a less than stellar job of differentiating these two categories of grievances.

  41. Boris Max
    March 8, 2006 at 3:40 pm

    If feminism means choices and choices are making the little ladies unhappy, then I think I’ve found the real feminist issue that is making women unhappy: voting! Why, 100 years ago the little darlings didn’t have to go into that nasty voting booth and chose from that dizzying array of candidates. Or maybe it’s the ability to have property in their own name–lots of brain-straining choices there. The ability to divorce an abusive husband? Another poser. But I’m going to stick with voiting.

    It’s a shame, really. If those silly 19th century feminists–and sufferage was a feminist issue for a long, long time–had known how much they would be hurting their great-granddaughters, I’m sure they wouldn’t have let the police bash their heads in during all those protests. Talk about unintended consequences…

  42. Jeremiah J.
    March 8, 2006 at 4:56 pm

    DKL: “But part of that realism is recognizing which grievances are worth bemoaning and which ones aren’t; I think that many schools of feminism do a less than stellar job of differentiating these two categories of grievances.”

    Exactly, which is why attacking a set of claims or a general approach to the world simply because it creates more unhappiness on average in those that believe it is not a valid criticism. It’s perfectly possible for feminism to be true and still be a cause of a net increase in unhappiness on average. When Bushman says that Joseph was a prophet of sorrow, you probably get this point perfectly, and don’t conclude that he was unhappy because he must have been a charlatan who despite his web of lies never got rich and politically powerful.

    To you, feminism is “encouraging women to be miserable” by telling that they are suffering injustices. In many cases this is strictly not true: many women have suffered, e.g. sexual abuse by men and don’t need to be talked into thinking that they have. In other cases, sure, feminists are telling already content women, e.g. SAHMs, that they aren’t living full lives. But this is not very different from the GOP telling rich people that the government is sucking them dry, unions telling workers that they’re getting screwed by their employers, pro-life activists telling women who have had abortions that they’ve committed murder, or defense lawyers telling their clients that they are not getting a fair trial. The important question is not whether such news increases discontent, but whether it actually does identify a real injustice. It just as possible that the discontent comes from the continuation of injustice rather than the continued imagination of injustice.

    I admit freely that many feminists say crazy things about married life, heterosexuality, etc. But they’re not crazy just because they cause discontent. In fact it’s not even empirically true that the most wild feminist claims are widely believed in America–most women don’t identify with the label. But even if they were widely believed and did cause discontent it would be irrelevant to their truth. This seems to be a pretty simple point, that’s already been made several times so far on this thread.

  43. DKL
    March 8, 2006 at 5:37 pm

    Jeremiah J, you seem to be implying that feminism is somehow uniquely qualified to take a stance on sexual abuse. I think that it’s worth noting that in the old days of patriarchy, rape got the death penalty. I think it’s safe to say that our society (feminists and non-feminists alike) simply does not condone sexual abuse, and there’s no basis for affording one group or the other some privileged basis to object to it.

    Moreover, I agree with your examples. Feminists peddle misery the same way that other politically motivated groups peddle misery. Perhaps the easiest way to create a political movement is to stand on a soapbox and accuse some group of making the audience miserable. But I don’t see a lot of feminists admitting that their goal is purely to attract a political following. Many politicians are rather more frank than that (though admittedly, many are not).

    And it is telling that most women reflexively believe that sexual equality is a necessary condition for a free society, yet most women do not self-identify as feminists. This strikes me as evidence that feminists either don’t do a good job of getting their message out or their message doesn’t speak to the concerns or priorities of many equality-minded women.

  44. Jeremiah J.
    March 8, 2006 at 6:32 pm

    DKL, you’re not justifed in claiming that I’m implying that feminism is uniquely qualified to take a stance on sexual abuse. The feminist point about abuse is not that it is wrong (“abuse is wrong” is an analytical truth anyway, unless abuse is somehow stripped of its normative meaning), or, primarily, that it should be punished more harshly, but that it happens more than people generally think, and is perpetrated primarily by people close to women (not some stranger hiding in the bushes). Most women who have been abused obviously know this, but it’s disturbing to people who don’t know it. I’m not saying the feminists are right in every respect here, only that they make claims which can be true and important, as well as disconcerting.

    You can push the debate back from “causing misery” to “being political motivated” if you want. It still doesn’t seem to be a safe haven for your argument. What is “politically motivated” other than “being motivated by some end whose means involves state power”? It surely doesn’t in itself say anything about whether such ends are justified or good in themselves, or pursued for good reasons or bad. If by “politically motivated” you mean “purely self-interested”, you’ve made a hasty generalization about every one of the examples I mentioned. I don’t see what evidence you could possibly have that feminists are coy about their political aims (ever heard that the “personal is political”?) moreso than others are. Nor do I know why this matters. The point still remains that many groups who have a “politically motivated” message that causes discontent are perfectly justifed in their claims. Uncomfortable truths are no more nor less likely, prima facie, to be nefarious than are “politically motivated” and comforting truths (e.g. that the Iranian government contains many moderates ready to emerge at any time, that our political leaders are all very devoted patriots who only err because of a lack of info, that Europeans are mostly in favor of the Iraq war, etc.).

    ‘Sexual equality’ is like abuse a term with little or no empirical content, only a specific normative force. Saying everyone is for equality is like saying everyone is for justice. It’s trivially true, in the sense that everyone endorses it in one way or another. Feminism isn’t merely the abstract demand for sexual equality, but for concrete particular kinds of equalities (though they disagree among themselves about what they are). That said, I’m perfectly willing to admit that (self-identified) feminists may be out of touch with average women, or that they’re bad representatives of their own position. But it seems just as likely that a part of their message has been largely accepted and has now passed into the common culture. Abortion rights and the feminist ideal(s) of the working mother with free day care is not accepted by all, but there are forms of sexual harrassment which would horrify most people today, including conservative women, which were much less widely seen as abhorrent even 35-40 years ago. Another example is the degree to which spousal abuse should be a matter for the courts rather than a matter best settled within the sanctity of the home. The line at which most people agree has moved quite significantly to the left in the last hundred years. It’s not quite fair to say these things aren’t feminism anymore just because we all like them now.

  45. Matt Evans
    March 8, 2006 at 7:58 pm

    Happiness surveys are always suspect. Cross-cultural surveys are often trotted out to show that material prosperity doesn’t make people any happier, but those same surveys also show that health care and low child mortality rates don’t effect self-reported happiness, either. Because I think having your children die of exposure really does reduce happiness, I’m skeptical of all analyses based on self-reported happiness measures. (The best explanation for these surveys is that people always measure their happiness relative to their expectations. The key to a happy life is to keep your expectations low, which is basically the same thing as “always be grateful.”)

  46. DKL
    March 8, 2006 at 8:04 pm

    Jeremiah, the feminists have no unique point to offer about sexual abuse, unless it’s to say that it’s symptomatic of a patriarchal society–not terribly useful. It’s universally abhorred, and people from all backgrounds offer all kinds of information that cause people to be disconcerted on many different levels.

    By politically motivated, I mean that they’re just advancing personal agendas under the auspices of helping women. This is much more the case now than it was years ago, when bell hooks originally made essentially the same charge in her groundbreaking essay, “Ain’t I a Woman, Too?”

    Sexual Equality is not an empty term. If nothing else, it means that sex can’t be used as an excuse for unequal treatment before the law. Insofar as we have a procedural justice system, this notion of unequal treatment has quite an explicit definition. And by the way, the term justice is also given a rather explicit definition by our procedural system.

    Lastly, whether feminism is responsible for the movement of the line with regard to women’s rights is an open question.

  47. S.
    March 8, 2006 at 8:31 pm

    I agree with Matt Evans #45. The result is probably meaningless.

    It’s as though I did a survey and found that people who long to be movie stars have less career satisfaction than people who don’t. Since most people aren’t movie stars, the statement is almost a tautology.

    It is similarly unsurprising that women who crave grand achievement in their careers, absolute equality in their relationships, plentiful opportunities to change the world, Democratic presidents, etc. are less satisfied than women who don’t crave these things.

    Of course, without knowing exactly how the research was done and what questions were asked, it is hard to know exactly how to interpret the results. But I certainly didn’t see anything in the reported numbers that would convince me that “feminism makes people unhappy,” let alone to support any of the stories the Slate author has dreamed up to explain the data. The differences were small and could easily be explained by any number of cultural differences between the population of “feminists” and the population of “non-feminists.”

  48. Mathew
    March 8, 2006 at 9:15 pm

    “whether feminism is responsible for the movement of the line with regard to women’s rights is an open question.”

    Sure DKL. I can suggest alternative reasons to explain just about any social phenomenon. Sometimes Occam’s razor comes in handy though.

  49. DKL
    March 8, 2006 at 9:48 pm

    Mathew, I think that you’re getting ahead of yourself with Occom’s razor. The question of whether feminism is a necessary and sufficient explanation for women’s progress must be answered before we can determine whether it is the simplest such explanation.

  50. Mathew
    March 8, 2006 at 10:23 pm


    Prior to applying Ockham’s razor you need only answer the question of whether feminism is a possible, not necessary, explanation for women’s progress before. The fact that you have two competing theories suggests that neither one is necessary.

    As has been expressed elsewhere, feminism has become such an inexact term that, in the right hands, it can explain all the good and ills of the world. Generally speaking, however, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say agitation for suffrage, equal wages, workplace opportunity, maternity leave . . . had a significant effect on the gains women have realized in those areas. This is most easily demonstrated with suffrage, but the apparent cause and effect can be observed using any of the other examples I list. I’m sure that there are other factors at play, but a person who suggests feminist agitation has little to do with women’s rights seems to me disingenuous.

  51. DKL
    March 8, 2006 at 10:53 pm

    Mathew, in the context of causation, necessity is relative to a set of baseline conditions. In the real world, there’s actually no such thing as an absolutely necessary condition, because of what is known as theory-ladenness.

    Nobody is more cognizant of the vagueness of the term feminism than me. You’ll notice than in my comment #40, I refer to specific schools of feminism. In my comment #46, I quote a specific feminist who wrote addressing other specific feminists. In my post that Kaimi links to and Jeremiah derides, I speak in terms of predominant views in schools of feminism.

    A person who suggests there is no alternative to the view that feminist agitation is largely responsible for women’s rights seems to me a bit too confident in the conventional wisdom..

  52. tnr
    March 9, 2006 at 12:12 am

    DKL, care to tell us who or what you think is in fact responsible for women’s rights?

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