Are Progressive Feminists Less Happy Than Traditionalist Wives?

Slate has a piece on two big interests of mine, feminism and happiness. The state of feminism is super interesting, and the subject of increased scrutiny since Betty Friedan died. In this article Meghan O’Rourke cites new studies out of U of Virginia that say stay-at-home moms are more content than their working-women counterparts. In an age when working women seem to be praised for exercising choice, surpassing men on the payscale, and achieving financial and emotional independence, this is surprising. More startling, is that the 15% of progressive feminists – folks who agree with Friedan that a world where wives run the home and men bring home the bread perpetuates inequality – are overall less happy than more traditionalist feminists. There are all sorts of qualifications in order for studies like this. For example, there always are questions about whether declared happiness equals real happiness — ie what people say on a survey may not be reality.

This being said, O’Rourke astutely tries to interpret the study, attributing unduly high expectations for progressive feminists as one possible explanation for their malaise. She also attributes the paradox of choice, a fascinating branch of consumer psychology. Traditionalist feminists have fewer choices in their day-to-day lives, but more certainly/stability. Finally, they also have the benefit of a majority peer group and indeed all of history to dictate how the husband/wife relationship should operate. The household mores are defined. When both parents work, it gets sticky. When just the mother works, even stickier (studies show that mothers still end up doing household chores, despite also being the sole breadwinner).

Of course, these discussions neglect financial pressures which can dictate working roles. But it’s most interesting to examine families absent financial pressure, and try to understand what situations at once seem the most "equal" and also make both spouses the most happy.

Related Posts:
Are Motherhood and Feminist Womanhood Mutually Exclusive?
Two Ways of Looking at Childrearing

7 comments on “Are Progressive Feminists Less Happy Than Traditionalist Wives?
  • One other possible explanation for the unhappiness of the progressive feminists is that they are making conscious decisions that contradict their conscious desires.

    Clearly there are biological differences between men and women.

    Clearly over most of human history, women have been the primary caregivers in the family.

    Perhaps the progressive feminists are feeling the impact of trying to swim against the tide of biology.

    We do this sort of thing all the time–we try to be something we’re not really meant to be, whether to please someone else, or to be consistent with our own desired self-image.

    Why should feminism be immune?

  • I think that stats like this have a really complex problem with
    correlation and causation: are home-making women happier because they
    wanted to stay at home and got to? (That is, are they fulfilling
    pre-existing desires?) Or is it that home-making is more fulfilling? Are
    feminists mad because they see how far the world falls short of their
    desires (ie since there still isn’t equity at work, they’re frustrated),
    or because women who are feminists tend to be less satisfied with the
    way things are, which is what made them feminists in the first place? Or
    because feminism leads to less satisfaction? I am not sure there could
    ever be a compelling and provable answer to those questions. But if we
    take as true the premise that even happiness, the baseline quantity that
    is allegedly being measured here, isn’t necessarily being measured
    accurately, then consider how impossible it would be to answer the
    chicken/egg questions above. I am not going to get into
    biology-as-destiny arguments, since presumably the parenting instinct is
    intrinsic to both sexes.

  • An interesting article.

    I don’t buy the swimming-against-biology argument, since, there is a difference between biological facts and societal norms (e.g. it is a fact that a man cannot give birth to a child, but it is a myth that he cannot change the diaper)

    Another interpretation could be that housewives do not get such an exposure of the outside world, that working women get, hence are less aware of the inequalities that exist.

  • I’m going to argue that there are other forces at work. The work week has gotten insanely long; the US societal structure does not favor family, it favors corporations. After reading this article, I kept thinking of alternatives such as Richard Florida’s Creative Class, and especially of Schor’s “Overworked American.”

    …in sum, it’s not how we think of ourselves, but what we’re realistically capable of doing that dictates how we’d respond to a happiness survey (I wonder how I’d respond to a happiness survey? I suspect I’d be suspicious of folks, and even of myself, for just flat-out saying that I’m jolly. Intellectual skeptcism? Ho-hum…Dunno).

    PS have you read any Amory Lovins? I so want to go work with this guy @ RMI after reading Winning the Oil Endgame. The book is a free PDF if you care to peruse as well:

  • Swimming against the tide of biology, eh? That must explain the unhappiness of all those Buddhists (swimming against the natural animal tendency toward violence and pleasure-seeking as an end in itself), mountain-climbers (swimming against the innate need for high oxygen levels), and empathic fathers (swimming against the biological tendency of males to favor systems analysis over emotional identification, cf. the work of Simon Baron-Cohen). Or maybe swimming against biological tides is something certain humans do rather well?

  • Swimming against the tide of biology or any other trend does not preclude getting to your destination.

    There are always exceptions to trends. Not every spot on the globe has gotten warmer over the past few decades, but that doesn’t mean that global warming doesn’t exist.

    My point is not that all women should stay at home and take care of the kids. If that were the case, the logical corollary would be that no men should be homemakers. Both are absurd statements, just like saying that all Asians are short, or that all African tribesmen are tall, just because the average heights in Asia are significantly lower than the average height of certain tribes in Africa (where have you gone, Manute Bol, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you…).

    However, this doesn’t change the fact that if the men of a particular tribe are taller on the average, and heighth is an advantage in basketball, that we would expect to see more of those tribesmen playing basketball in the NBA than of the corresponding tribe of pygmies down the road.

    Biology isn’t destiny…at least for any given individual. But to deny that predispositions play an important role simply because of the presence of exceptions from the other ends of the bell curve is just as fallacious as claiming that all women should be in the home.

    Some women would be happier as homemakers than working. Some men would be happier as homemakers than working. Our society probably pushes some women into staying home that should be working, and some men into working that should be staying home. But that doesn’t rule out the possibility that even in a completely unbiased society, biological differences would result in different career choices for men and women in the aggregate.

  • All excellent points, Chris, and I agree with you for the most part. The language in your first post that pushed me to make my post was this:
    We do this sort of thing all the time–we try to be something we’re not really meant to be, whether to please someone else, or to be consistent with our own desired self-image.
    It’s one thing to say that in many human societies, women have been the primary caregivers, and another to say that women who have careers outside the home are “try[ing] to be something [they’re] not really meant to be.”
    But I think you clarified the point. Thanks.

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