Freud said fulfillment lay in the twin poles of work and love, so let’s look also at love—and lovemaking. The women’s movement helped to liberate female libido, and a landmark moment was when researcher Shere Hite presented data in 1976 showing that most women need more than simple penetration in order to reach orgasm. This immediately put men on notice that they needed to ramp up their sexual game. That was, we can all agree, a really good thing. However, young women I hear from today are not, for the most part, relaxed and simply enjoying their sexuality; they are worrying about their presentation. The 1976 goal of a nice orgasm or two—or five—morphed, thanks to the multibillion-dollar pornography industry, into a new sexual script for women, one that requires a highly theatrical, no-holds-barred performance, not to mention perfect abs.
To this pressure for sexual hyper-achievement, add the heightened desire for consumer goods. In Deluxe, the best-selling book about luxury-goods marketing, Dana Thomas writes that the past 40 years have seen an ever-expanding army of luxury products and advertisements for them colonizing more and more women further and further down the socioeconomic ladder. Men too are targeted—but the bulk of the luxury ad dollar “buy” is in women’s media. Where once there was a tiny coterie of the financially elite buying Louis Vuitton luggage and Chanel handbags, now anyone with a credit card can do so. Luxury manufacturers have evolved from being hole-in-the-wall, Italian-suburb family enterprises to being vast multinational corporations, focused on creating a totally inaccessible layer of goods at the top—but creating a doorway to “the dream” for the masses with an affordable scarf, sunglasses or perfume. Given all this, are we surprised that contentment is hard to find? Your mom may well have been happy with her vacation in the Poconos, but you probably don’t feel the same about the water park; maybe you need the Costa Esmeralda, because you saw the fabulous ad and how can it be beyond you when your neighbors went last year?
Western feminism may have given women economic independence, but that does not necessarily translate into economic wisdom. The recent financial bubble—with its implications of overextended credit cards, home equity debt and busted McMansions—reveals that, for women, too, “satisfaction” got conflated in the past few decades with material goods. And for the first time in human history, women had their own money with which to make their own financial mistakes.
So where does all this stoking of feminine discontent leave us? In a great place to learn about real contentment. All of this could be an opportunity for us to be not just freer (a value cherished by all waves of feminism) but also wiser. It would be salutary for women (and men, for that matter) in the West to grow out of their 40-year adolescence—their long, eye-rolling whine—and to actually take the next step toward true maturity.
First, let’s rethink the definition of happiness. Most people quote the Declaration of Independence’s phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as if it means that being personally fulfilled is the promise of America. But personal gratification is not what happiness meant in the eighteenth century. It had much more of a connotation of the fortunate condition of using one’s fullest capacities in the service of a larger good. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and even Jane Austen all use happiness in this sense, rather than in the sense of personal gratification. That is a nice place to start redefining.
The truth is that women did get elements of “happiness” from feminism, if you define happiness as self-possession, self-knowledge and the right to have problems of one’s own choosing and to possess your own destiny.
But we can learn from the mistaken definitions of the past 40 years. We could decide, for example, that happiness, as it is now defined, is overrated. If happiness means pure pleasure, no hassle, well, that is a 14-year-old’s idea of fun. Maybe the point of a free woman’s life isn’t having nonstop personal fun 24/7.