Tuesday, May 26, 2009


I was praying to myself (as the nearest divine) not to ever have to use that silly title about Ross Douthat. But he wants it, so there it sits, on top of this post, sigh, because Douthat insists on going after us wimmenfolk as soon as possible. He's David Brooksian in his approach. This consists of pretending that he reallyreally cares about women's equality but, alas, the little dears just cannot handle equality and --- oops! look at this study I found by digging very hard! --- the science agrees.

Where was I? Oh, douchehattery. Here it goes:

American women are wealthier, healthier and better educated than they were 30 years ago. They're more likely to work outside the home, and more likely to earn salaries comparable to men's when they do. They can leave abusive marriages and sue sexist employers. They enjoy unprecedented control over their own fertility. On some fronts — graduation rates, life expectancy and even job security — men look increasingly like the second sex.

But all the achievements of the feminist era may have delivered women to greater unhappiness. In the 1960s, when Betty Friedan diagnosed her fellow wives and daughters as the victims of "the problem with no name," American women reported themselves happier, on average, than did men. Today, that gender gap has reversed. Male happiness has inched up, and female happiness has dropped. In postfeminist America, men are happier than women.


All this ambiguity lends itself to broad-brush readings. A strict feminist and a stringent gender-role traditionalist alike will probably find vindication of their premises between the lines of Wolfers and Stevenson's careful prose. The feminist will see evidence of a revolution interrupted, in which rising expectations are bumping against glass ceilings, breeding entirely justified resentments. The traditionalist will see evidence of a revolution gone awry, in which women have been pressured into lifestyles that run counter to their biological imperatives, and men have been liberated to embrace a piggish irresponsibility.

There's evidence to fit each of these narratives. But there's also room for both.

Feminists and traditionalists should be able to agree, for instance, that the structures of American society don't make enough allowances for the particular challenges of motherhood. We can squabble forever about the choices that mothers ought to make, but the difficult work-parenthood juggle is here to stay. (Just ask Sarah and Todd Palin.) And there are all kinds of ways — from a more family-friendly tax code to a more accommodating educational system — that public policy can make that juggle easier. Conservatives and liberals won't agree on the means, but they ought to agree on the end: a nation where it's easier to balance work and child-rearing, however you think that balance should be struck.

What utter rubbish. First, you cannot use a study like that to prove that women are unhappier than men, in some objective sense. It cannot be done, because interpersonal comparisons of statements about subjective emotions don't lend themselves to such conclusions. It's like saying that my toothache is worse than yours.

Second, for the same reason you cannot say that women (of a given age etc.) now are unhappier than women fifty years ago. You could only do that if you could somehow swap those women in time and let each group live the other's life for a few decades.

Third, I'm quite certain that if we follow opinion surveys on happiness for longer time periods than Douthat did we find that in the past women who were surveyed expressed higher levels of unhappiness than men who were surveyed. (I have seen the evidence on that and will post it here if I get the time to look for it again.)

Fourth, that last paragraph in the above quote really is silly. Conservatives don't want women to have a balance between work and child-rearing. It's hard to know what they want, exactly, but it certainly includes not having any women in positions of power in the public sector, and that goal depends on discouraging women from paid work.

Fifth, and finally, the whole piece stinks, because it's written as a very neutral and kind discussion of the old-and-eternally-fascinating-topic: What the fuck is wrong with women? And how can we help the poor little dears? Note that another way to interpret the evidence of this study would be to point out how men are now ever-so-happy and how feminism really has made their lives more meaningful. If you want to go along those silly routes.
An earlier post on happiness and gender is here.