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In September 2009, Marcus Buckingham—a motivational speaker and trainer who now claims the improbable job title of “the world’s leading expert in personal strengths”—rolled out Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently. His headline? Women have become less happy in the past 40 years. Unstated but clear: What happened 40 years ago is that feminism reappeared on the scene.
Buckingham’s announcement immediately stirred a press sensation. His findings were featured on the home page of the Huffington Post and worried over by Maureen Dowd on the op-ed page of the New York Times. Blogs, newsmagazines and daytime talk shows all agonized over the notion that feminism—all that freedom, all those choices!—was making women sadder. The data seemed to touch that ever-sensitive nerve: Could feminism be, at its essence, bad—not just for men, but for women themselves?
If, like me, you are over 40, you’ve seen this very same media firestorm a couple of times now in your adult life. Remember the giant 1986 feeding frenzy when Newsweek misread data and warned that an educated woman of a certain age was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to get married? An entire book—Susan Faludi’s Backlash—was devoted to showing the holes in that interpretation of the research, and to shooting down the various urban legends that were cropping up at the time to “prove” that emancipation made women into lonely, downbeat losers.
But here we are again, as the media swallow whole a new set of data points asserting that something fundamental about feminism is making women—fill in the blank: crazy, solitary or, this time around, simply miserable.
Did women in fact tell the researchers that they are sadder, gloomier, less happy? Not exactly. One of the studies Buckingham cites—the General Social Survey, which has tracked American trends since 1972—does ask “How happy are you?” But Buckingham’s conclusions are also based on answers to more specific questions in the GSS that ask women about satisfaction, which is quite different. The wording of one, for example, was “How satisfied are you”—with your job, your marriage, your children.
Now, if 40 years of the women’s movement have done anything definite, they have taught women to be less “satisfied,” if what that means is less complacent.
For you can be very happy with various aspects of your life and still say to a voice on the phone that you are “not satisfied.” You can be happy with your beloved partner and still seek better sex, smoother communication, or a higher, finer mutuality and parity. You can adore your kids and still seek broader horizons for them, or want their schools to better attend to their unique needs and talents. You can love your work and still imagine parlaying a middle-management job into an attention-grabbing start-up with one fantastic idea. Is that bad? Most of us would say that those kinds of “dissatisfaction” are good.
But even if Buckingham’s sources did not unequivocally bear out the “women are unhappy” hype, he is on to something, as are the commentators who took up the discussion.
Not Hip to be Happy
Consider this typical exchange among successful, affluent, educated women in Manhattan, where I live. These are the women who have everything that feminism, Western culture and consumer society define as highly valuable: income; choices; stylishness; fascinating, high-status work; rich and equitable, if demanding, family lives. Yet among themselves the question “How are you?” is almost never followed by “Great.”
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.
But Second Wave feminism descends from a much more individualistic intellectual mother, and that has actually wreaked some havoc on our well-being. Simone de Beauvoir is the ancestress of the ideals of the Second Wave, because her 1949 tome The Second Sex (newly rereleased in a fresh translation) was the philosophical framework that Betty Friedan drew upon—some would say cribbed from—in 1963 for her aspirational blockbuster, The Feminine Mystique. Now, French existentialism is, in some ways, a weird philosophy through which to articulate women’s deepest experiences and values. Born out of the ravages of the world’s worst war, it is a deeply cynical, secular school of thought that posits the self and personal choice as being the source of life’s meaning. It is about the self in isolation from the whole world of families, social roles, mutual obligations, concerns for the future of one’s children. As the vehicle of women’s self-definition, it is not, I’d say, a natural fit. But it was the fierce individualism of this philosophy that led de Beauvoir to her notion—radical for the post–World War II society she lived in—that women too possessed selves that were not defined by others. Still, existentialism’s very focus on personal choice at the expense of everything also set us on a perilous path.
Betty Friedan took this stark world view and popularized it for the burgeoning market of postwar educated American women who were desperately trying to apply their master’s degrees in poetry to the details of multiple loads of laundry. Women were questioning their prescribed roles, Friedan believed, and in her book she put their angst into words: “Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries . . . she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—‘Is this all?’ ”
Friedan termed this The Problem that Has No Name, and for women desiring to challenge and upend their prescribed roles in order to find their true selves, a softened version of de Beauvoir’s existentialism was certainly a handy instrument. And so, from two accidents of intellectual history—that one of the key women writers to have explored female consciousness was an existentialist, and that Betty Friedan, the great popularizer, happened to choose her to crib from—our version of feminism was reborn. The fact that our civilization was experiencing a postwar boom anyway, a materialistic wave that would sweep up men as well as women, simply meant that both genders had freedom defined for them as “self’s choices first of all”—but for women this transformation was also relabeled “feminism.”
So Second Wave Western feminism was articulated as being about the choices of the individual—the personal is political—rather than the First Wave feminists’ impersonal goal of transcendent justice. And the rest is history. Western women became really good at identifying what was crying out in their souls and kicking away hindrances to that self’s being fulfilled. Unfortunately, this message of self-assertion at all costs mingled with other messages of consumer capitalism. To those millions of newly self-asserting, newly enfranchised women—who increasingly had their own money to spend—market forces started to whisper messages about the value of consuming in certain ways. In the 1970s and 1980s, our culture told both genders that one’s “individuality” was paramount—but also that it could be expressed not only by choosing an interesting career and mate, but by choosing the right handbag, the right vacation, the right gourmet kitchenware or personal trainer or perfect highlighting.
So how surprising is it, with these messages having merged and blurred for four decades, that Western women would start to look around and think again, “Is this all?” Perhaps, 40 years on, American women have become dissatisfied with being dissatisfied.
Finding a New Harmony
I mentioned how affluent women are often puzzled—almost pitying—when I express appreciation for my life. You don’t get it, they think; you fool, you don’t have to be satisfied! In New Delhi, I was also pitied by women, but for a very different reason.
I was giving a speech about Western feminism to a group of India’s emerging movers and shakers, an audience of the most progressive women and men in the nation. On a panel with me was another divorced single parent, a charismatic, accomplished, charming Indian guy who lives in the U.S. and is a total winner by American standards. Together we described the division of domestic labor between women and men in this country (and chattered away about our respective custody schedules). The questions that followed, from both women and men, about how the genders sort out their roles in the West, revealed their sorrow for us both. No one was hostile. They understood that Western men and women had negotiated a different set of expectations and that our priorities were freedom, equality and so on. But the unspoken question was: How could you do that? How could you harm or even utterly transform the most important thing of all—the family?
Later, a lively, beautiful and bright young journalist confirmed and explained what I’d sensed in the audience. She said that Indian women know that Western feminism is coming, and that while they are thrilled at certain aspects of it—such as greater scope in their professional lives—they are terrified by what they see as the loss of the deepest personal attachments. She said they want to find a way to take the best of Western feminism but be spared what appears to them to be the brutal transformation of roles and general damage to relationships.
That trip, and others like it, shook me up. Feminists in the developing world have lessons to teach us, because their movement did not begin with French existentialism. Their version of equality is not usually that of a self-asserting, solitary individual; rather, it is rooted in a world view in which the individual’s needs and expectations are just one of a set of larger needs—those of family, of community, even of spirit—that should be, ideally, in harmony.
But if true happiness requires a state of harmony, well, Western women just may find it unattainable. Our corporate model seems designed to create maximum stress and misery in women.
New neuroscience increasingly reveals that the male and female brains are not identical. Male neurobiology, from millennia spent on the hunt, is wired to focus on a task to the exclusion of human dependencies. Women evolved to survey the environment, gather, produce goods and food, and raise small children in an entrepreneurial, flexible context in which every element is part of the greater whole. Women for the most part are not happy being compartmentalized in a bleak man-made workspace, isolated from family and social life, and alienated from their larger context. (Men aren’t that happy either, but the new brain science—see Michael Gurian’s What Could He Be Thinking?—suggests that they may tolerate it somewhat better.) The most fulfilled women I have ever met, in a career context, are those who produce their work the way our evolutionary model suggests we are meant to: in flexible, family-friendly environments, in which work hours can wrap around the ebbs and flows of the dramas of parenting, and in which a strong, respected community of other women understands these seemingly disparate forms of accomplishment and cheer each other on. After 40 years of women trying to fit into a postindustrial Western “male” model for work, we’ve seen that women can achieve in it just fine, and often they even outperform men—but that doesn’t mean it is the right model for most women’s deepest satisfaction.
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.
Should we, rather, consider that there are gifts we have—such as our kids, our parents, our partners—who are often problematic and often imperfect, but whose very challenges to us, whose very demands that we stretch to sustain love and care for them, are gifts to us in themselves? Should we consider that the very burdens of our freedom—our having problems of our own choosing—are gifts as well? Should we see that defining a credit card as perhaps the easiest route to happiness may have hidden costs? Should we outgrow the oppression of the very idea of “perfect”?
Maybe true female contentment is to be found in the journey and even in the journey’s struggles, rather than in some trite fantasy destination that is inherently unreachable anyway. Maybe you find it in spite of, not because of, cultural “happiness” scripts. Especially if, this time around, we are finally willing to ask ourselves the right set of questions.
Naomi Wolf is the best-selling author of The Beauty Myth and The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot.
How satisfied are you with your life? The results of our survey are! Find out what women told us about their lives.
Originally published in the April 2010 More.