Feminism Makes Women Unhappy, And Other Tall Tales

A new study about comparative (supposed) happiness levels in women since the 70s has sparked the inevitable conservative response by Ross Douthat that this is what feminism hath wrought. Actually, this is what happens when a self-proclaimed Harvard grad continues to read only the introductions to research papers.

Although, I suppose we should give Douthat a break. It is a 45-page academic paper comprised of nearly 40 years worth of data subjected to regression analysis and filled with statistical and sociological jargon. It's so much easier to just read the abstract and then judge the ongoing battle for social equity as ultimately harmful for women! That abstract states:

By many objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women's happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men. The paradox of women's declining relative wellbeing is found across various datasets, measures of subjective well-being, and is pervasive across demographic groups and industrialized countries. Relative declines in female happiness have eroded a gender gap in happiness in which women in the 1970s typically reported higher subjective well-being than did men.

From that, Douthat extrapolates this:

But all the achievements of the feminist era may have delivered women to greater unhappiness.

It's the new Feminine Mystique! Only, you know, not.

The authors do, however, offer explanations more plausible than Douthat's idea that the attainment of something approaching gender equality makes us poor dames so unhappy. (Douthat would only have had to read to page 4!)

For example, if happiness is assessed relative to outcomes for one's reference group, then greater equality may have led more women to compare their outcomes to those of the men around them. In turn, women might find their relative position lower than when their reference group included only women. This change in the reference group may make women worse off or it may simply represent a change in their reporting behavior. An alternative form of reference dependent preferences relates well-being to whether or not expectations are met. If the women's movement raised women's expectations faster than society was able to meet them, they would be more likely to be disappointed by their actual experienced lives.

In other words, if we come into the world — work, domestic, social — expecting equality and then don't get it — which many of us don't — and we start comparing ourselves to men, of course we're going to be pissed. It's the old bait-and-switch, and who the fuck likes that?

The authors add:

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. Over time it is likely that women are aggregating satisfaction over an increasingly larger domain set. For example, life satisfaction may have previously meant "satisfaction at home" and has increasingly come to mean some combination of "satisfaction at home" and "satisfaction at work". This averaging over many domains may lead to falling average satisfaction if it is difficult to achieve the same degree of satisfaction in multiple domains.

In other words, when women had no reasonable expectation of being able to achieve happiness at work (due to lack of jobs or proscribed labor market possibilities), they didn't count their expected-dissatisfaction at work as part of whether they considered themselves happy and, once the possibility of being happy is there (regardless of whether the equality to achieve it is translated into practice), they count their dissatisfaction as part of their overall happiness. I guess I sort of fail to see where that's such a terrible thing, but, then again, I'm not Harvard-educated.

In addition, Douthat ignores this little gem about what the phrase "subjective happiness" means in practice.

However, it should be noted that subjective well-being is both a function of the individual's personality and his or her reaction to life events. As such, correlations between life outcomes and happiness may not be causal. For example, one reason that married people report substantially greater happiness than unmarried people in a cross-section is because happy people are more likely than unhappy people to marry (Stevenson and Wolfers, 2007)

The authors also note that self-reported happiness correlates with social expectations of when one ought to be happy.

Self-reports of happiness have also been shown to be correlated in the expected direction with changes in life circumstances. For example, an individual's subjective well-being typically rises with marriage and income growth and falls while going through a divorce.

In other words, if ones thinks one is supposed to be happy (or unhappy), one reports that, making subjective well-being both a measure of what one thinks one ought to feel and what one actually feels. I'll leave it to other people to extrapolate whether or not there might be reasons that women would be more likely feel they're supposed to not be happy when they are, or why men might be more likely to report being happy when they legitimately aren't.

Or, quite frankly, women might have been lying all along.

It has been recognized that an individual's assessment of their well-being may reflect the social desirability of responses and Kahneman (1999) argues that people in good circumstances may be hedonically better off than people in worse circumstances, yet they may require more to declare themselves happy. In the context of the findings presented in this paper, 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.

Not surprisingly, Douthat ignores the fact that the study shows that the subjective happiness of African-American women is actually much higher than that of African-American men.

An important exception is that this phenomenon has not occurred similarly across racial groups. African-American women have become happier over this period in parallel with rising happiness among African-American men, implying little change in their gender happiness gap. This rise in African-American women's happiness has occurred as part of an overall rise in the happiness of blacks, a rise that has eliminated two-thirds of the black-white happiness gap (Stevenson and Wolfers, 2008b).

Douthat actually deliberately ignores this, stating in his piece:

But this can't be the only explanation, since the trend toward greater female discontent cuts across lines of class and race. A working-class Hispanic woman is far more likely to be a single mother than her white and wealthy counterpart, yet the male-female happiness gap holds in East Hampton and East L.A. alike.

Actually, no, it doesn't show that at all — particularly because the authors had no data on self-identified Hispanics prior to 2000 and were forced to make some pretty hinky extrapolations to come up with the conclusion Douthat cites as established fact. But to admit that would cut against Douthat's thesis which is — to those who rememberwhat Douthat thinks about "sluts" — unsurprising. Douthat thinks that women are unhappy because society doesn't do enough slut-shaming!

[Feminists and conservatives] should also be able to agree that the steady advance of single motherhood threatens the interests and happiness of women. Here the public-policy options are limited; some kind of social stigma is a necessity. But a new-model stigma shouldn't (and couldn't) look like the old sexism. There's no necessary reason why feminists and cultural conservatives can't join forces - in the same way that they made common cause during the pornography wars of the 1980s - behind a social revolution that ostracizes serial baby-daddies and trophy-wife collectors as thoroughly as the "fallen women" of a more patriarchal age.

No reason, of course, save the fact that contemporary America doesn't seem willing to accept sexual stigma, period.

Right, the problem with single motherhood is that it — on its own — makes women unhappy and they're not remotely unhappy because, unlike in, say, Europe, there aren't enough social structures or government services to mitigate the difficulties of achieving professional success and responsible single-parenting. Nope! If we just slut-shamed women (and, to Douthat's credit, some men) more, then they'd have fewer children out of wedlock and would totally be happier! Except for the women who have children outside of matrimonial bounds, who would be slut-shamed for irresponsibly having sex, an ironic statement from a guy who prefers to sleep with women not on birth control. There's no word on whether women who are single parents after a divorce would also be shamed for having driven off their husbands.

But, even further to that, the authors of the study specifically investigated the potential for single motherhood being the cause of the decline in female happiness, and disproved it.

Along with the decline in marriage has come a rise in single parenthood, both through growth in out-of-wedlock births and through divorce. Thus, we disaggregate the fertility results to consider trends in happiness separately among single parents and married parents, and, to account for the duel burden of working parents, between employed parents and non-employed parents. Once again, we see similar trends in happiness across these groups, casting doubt on the hypothesis that trends in marriage and divorce, single parenthood, or work-family balance are at the root of the happiness declines among women.

And, just for good measure, let's throw in what women have to say about what they think they've gained from the feminist movement (page 25):

Moreover, women believe that their lives are better; in recent polls asking about changes in the status of women over the past 25 or 50 years, around four in five adults state that the overall status of women in the U.S. has gotten better (and the remaining respondents break two-for-one towards "stayed the same" over "worse"). Additionally, the 1999 Virginia Slims Poll found that 72% of women believe that "women having more choices in society today gives women more opportunities to be happy" while only 39% thought that having more choices "makes life more complicated for women." Finally, women today are more likely than men to believe that their opportunities to succeed exceed those of their parents.

Ah, Douthat. But there are other reasons, besides intellectual laziness, ideological blinders, an utter failing to understand any nuance in female sexuality and a 10-year case of blueballs not to blame him for having failed to parse the research he cites as a reason for society to get behind him on the slut-shaming bandwagon. I mean, there must be, because the New York Times gave him a column!

The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness [University of Pennsylvania]
Liberated And Unhappy [NY Times]

Related: Yes, This Was Published In A Major Newspaper In The Year 2009 [Pandagon]
Fear of Reese Witherspoon Look-Alikes On The Pill [Brad DeLong]