Two University of Pennsylvania economists have completed a study showing that over the past four decades the happiness gap between whites and African Americans has been significantly reduced.
That's good news indeed and Julia Baird is right to offer it as proof that the civil rights movement has made an appreciable difference in the lives of African Americans. Link here.
But, as she notes, the picture is not quite as clear as it first appears. While African American women have enjoyed the greatest increase in their personal happiness, African American men did not have any increase at all.
Why is it that the civil rights movement, in practice, seems to have been biased against men? Why is it that the movement did not save African American males?
Baird asks the right question, and perhaps, for now, it is good enough merely to isolate the issue. To answer it we would want to look at how the mix of the civil rights movement and feminism might have disadvantaged black men.
And Baird notes that increased happiness among African American women is not the only reason that the gap has diminished. The other reason is that white women are considerably more unhappy today than they were forty years ago.
In her words: "In fact, the key to this trend is women-- white women of all ages and incomes are substantially less happy, while, intriguingly, black women at the same time have become much happier. Yet in the 1970s white women were the happiest of any group. What happened? Why didn't feminism bring them the happiness civil rights brought blacks?"
You might be excused if you do a double-take reading this, from the keyboard of a serious feminist like Julia Baird.
How can it be that in the time before contemporary feminism white women were the happiest group in America? Weren't they supposed to have been suffering discrimination and oppression, being deprived of their rights in exactly the same way that blacks had been?
The evidence suggests otherwise. Could it be that women in pre-feminist days did not have it all that badly after all?
At the very least, the statistics, gathered by two women economists, raise the issue.
Baird's second point is equally salient. How is it that feminism did not bring white women the same happiness that the civil rights movement brought to black women?
Baird takes a few stabs at rationalizing this, but clearly feminism has managed to make white women significantly unhappier. It may be that drawing an analogy between the way white America treated blacks and the way male Americans were treating women is specious.
Perhaps the oppression and discrimination experienced by American blacks was real in a way that the oppression and discrimination that feminists insisted was the lot of women was not.
Feminists might have felt empathy for the suffering of their African American fellow citizens, but that does not mean that they were suffering from involuntarily servitude and pervasive social discrimination.
Ideologically, feminism was a far more radical movement than civil rights. Civil rights leaders wanted African Americans to be respected as fellow citizens, to have a place at the table at all levels of American society, to participate fully in the political process, and to have the fullest opportunity to compete in the marketplace.
Civil rights was not about destroying the system, but improving it by allowing greater participation. After all, it was President Eisenhower who called in the troops to desegregate Little Rock's Central High School in 1957.
America needed to overcome institutional racism, the better to offer African Americans full access to the American dream.
Of course, some African American leaders wanted civil rights to be a liberation movement-- Rev. Jeremiah Wright comes to mind-- but that was neither its impetus nor its theoretical basis.
The contemporary civil rights movement came of age in the 1950s and 1960s. It did not share the radical leftist tinge that inspired the post-Vietnam feminist movement.
As Joan Didion wrote in 1972, feminism was based on an ideology that saw women as the vanguard of a Marxist revolution against patriarchy, capitalism, and imperialism.
Didion suggested forty years ago that women were being induced by feminism to deny the reality of their experience in order to become a revolutionary vanguard. The new statistics about the decline in white women's happiness seems to be saying that she was far more right than wrong. Too often, feminism was using women to advance a radical political agenda.
Julia Baird would doubtless disagree, but it appears that feminism was not really constructed to benefit women. Perhaps the fact that white women are significantly less happy than they were in pre-feminist days should not be such a surprise.