Causation, Correlation, and the Anti-Feminist Trope That Just Won’t Die

September 18, 2009

Today in fauxgressive land, this article, complete with simplistic graphs, makes the dubious claim that women’s happiness decreases with better opportunity. It is yet another in a series of what seems like about seventy bajillion similar pieces earnestly wondering why women are so unhappy, what with the fact that feminism fixed all that pesky inequality, and hinting that maybe feminism really just makes the ladeez miserable. Basically, author Marcus Buckingham points to two findings: women’s unhappiness increases as they get older, and women’s unhappiness has increased over the past thirty years. Men have shown the opposite trends. From this he draws the following:

Wherever researchers have been able to collect reliable data on happiness, the finding is always the same: greater educational, political, and employment opportunities have corresponded to decreases in life happiness for women, as compared to men.

And he just can’t figure out why!

So if it’s not the hours, or the attitudes, and if the inequality of home-work is fast disappearing, where does that leave us?

Let’s assume for a moment that it has actually been conclusively shown that these factors are not linked to happiness in women. And let’s take a stab that gets at one of many reasons life gets harder for women but easier for men with age.

Women are taught to value themselves according to how attractive they are to men. They are also taught to value romantic relationships highly, and to expect that getting married and having babies babies BABIES will make them happy.

How do you think women’s lives mesh with those expectations as they age? I propose: often not very well.

Men, on the other hand, are told to value themselves according to how much money they have.

In general, would you say that men have more or less money as they get older?

Oh! And excuse me Mr. Thousand Pound Gorilla in the corner? Would you say pressure on men to live up to the ridiculous standards of patriarchal masculinity is greater or lesser as they age?

Not surprisingly, becoming invisible and being devalued by society is distressing to most women. I actually look forward to some aspects of it (you can do all sorts of exciting things when no one notices you), but that is because of a lot of conscious thought on my part about what it means to age as a woman in a patriarchal society.

Not surprisingly, life is easier for men when they’re not constantly being asked to “prove” their masculinity, and when they feel they have accomplished the things society expects of them.

I don’t see what this has to do with increased opportunities for women. I really don’t. Do you?

The loss of happiness in women over the past 30 years could seem to have a greater correlation to increased opportunities for women, if you believe that feminism really did win educational and employment opportunities for women without any losses in other areas that impact our quality of life.

However, you may have noticed that there has been a slight rabid backlash to the feminist movement. This backlash has focused in large part on women’s physical appearance. As women’s access to the public sphere has increased, media images of female beauty have become increasingly unattainable, and women have been increasingly encouraged to value themselves according to how sexually pleasing they are to men.

You may also have noticed that this backlash has included a small uptick in crushing pressure to be “perfect” according to wildly different and even contradictory standards.

If you ask me, a more valid study of whether women’s happiness goes down when they have more power, money, and opportunity would not just measure whether women in the U.S. have become happier since the feminist movement, since feminist gains have been uneven and often counterbalanced by losses, and since all kinds of other factors (like how acceptable they feel it is to express unhappiness, and whether they feel they should have lots of opportunities) have an impact on women’s self-reported happiness over time. It would measure whether women in countries that have more power, money, and opportunity are less happy than their counterparts in countries where women have less power, money, and opportunity.

It tuns out that this information is, in fact, available.

Drumroll please.

Women in more gender equal societies like Denmark are generally happier than women in less gender equal societies like Poland, Slovenia, and the Ukraine!

Men in more gender equal societies are also generally happier.

In fact, overall, EVERYONE is happier in more gender equal societies!

But then, I suppose Feminism Makes People Happy wasn’t the headline they were looking for.


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