In fact, if someone in this realm asks me how I am and I smile and say, “Everything’s good, thank heavens! Kids are healthy, partner’s great, work is going well,” people gaze at me blankly for a beat, as if I have just gotten off the bus from a small town in a forgotten agricultural region. For them, it is more socially acceptable to answer the question with a list of complaints: too busy, too tired, workload too heavy, contractors on the new addition taking forever. If you are closer friends, you can add teenagers acting out and college applications too demanding.
Does this habit of seeing and talking about what’s wrong—at the expense of noticing, let alone being grateful for, what’s right—mean that modern Western women would want to return to their mothers’ more limited, prefeminist lives? Of course not. Nor does it mean that feminism made women unhappy. It does mean, though, that there are certain contemporary pressures working against women’s contentment and those are worth paying attention to.
In the 1950s, women were admonished to be content with their lot, whatever it was. Did feminism teach women to be dissatisfied? Yes, it did, and I say that proudly. Women’s first “click” moments, as Ms. magazine famously described those early-1970s sparks of insight, were about what was wrong. The first activity of feminism’s Second Wave—Betty Friedan’s era—did not consist of chaining oneself to the gates of Parliament or Congress, as feminists had done 60 years before. It consisted of complaining about one’s life. Numberless American women realized that all was not well in the pink-collar ghetto called the typing pool—or in comfy suburban tract houses, either. In consciousness raising (CR) groups, they sat in a circle with other women, not thanking goodness for the roofs over their heads, but giving themselves and one another permission at last to drop the façade of perfection; permission to articulate what was not, in fact, OK.
Once they started, they were on a roll: CR groups identified what was wrong again and again—from limited career horizons and the assumption that you were incompetent to do a job when you became pregnant to the expectation that every woman should be able to have an orgasm every time from intercourse alone.
One could say that the history of the past 40 years of Western feminism has been a history of women learning what they can—and should—identify as a problem to correct or as a ceiling to push against. The outcome? Female “satisfaction” was rebranded as tacky, complacent, couch-potatoey, even kind of low-rent. If you were satisfied, you were either not very bright or not trying hard enough. Was the Melanie Griffith character in Working Girl “satisfied” with her status? If so, she’d have stayed forever as secretary to the evil Sigourney Weaver yuppie. Was Erin Brockovich “satisfied”? Ditto, re: toxic waste in the drinking water. Was Hillary Clinton “satisfied” with the demanding and rewarding job of first lady? I rest my case.
Think of the heroine of the recent hit film Precious, a young, sexually abused, pregnant, HIV-positive, obese, emotionally tormented heroine who refuses to continue suffering from others’ cruel self-absorption. How appealing would she be if her character tried to adapt to her circumstances and find the silver lining?
Feminism has defined a smart woman as one who is questing and aspirational. Satisfaction with the status quo is for saps.
The Mothers of Our Discontent
First Wave feminists, such as the suffragettes, were hardworking and frustrated, but their letters do not show them unusually dissatisfied in their personal lives. Their movement was about justice, equal opportunity and the larger ways to contribute to society. They were dissatisfied with the world.