Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Has Feminism Made Women Happier?

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.


Stuart Schneiderman said...

As Joan Didion wrote, and as I tried to explain in an earlier post, many of the thinkers who defined contemporary feminism in the early 1970s offered a Marxist orientation.

Like the liberation theology that grew up in South America at the time, women's liberation proposed a revolt against patriarchal oppression. And that included capitalism and imperialism.

I am not saying that every feminist would have sympathized with this perspective, but the narrative that feminism was selling was perfectly consistent with Marxism.

At the time, as I recall, Marxism was certainly in academic vogue. The fact that the great American military machine could not prevail over the
Viet Cong persuaded many people that the future belonged to Communism.

As you say, we are not a Marxist country, but that is why feminism and other members of the radical left wanted a revolution to overthrow the government and to establish a new form of government.

sss said...

That would have been a small minority of vocal, radical feminists. The majority wanted equal pay for equal Capitalistic work, as well as other rights within the Capitalist American society.

The fruits are what we are seeing now - women working within and for the Capitalist machine, allowing them to buy all sorts of "stuff" they were previously not able to buy without asking money from their husbands.

The minority of Marxist Feminist Revolutionaries could have even been a conspiracy by the Capitalists to convince women that they were indeed not going to have to fuel the Capitalist Machine - but rather were part of a Revolutionary Utopian Vision.

Once they got on board - they were firmly entrenched in Capitalism, as was the plan all along.

Elspeth said...

Who in their right mind thinks that what we have in America is "capitalism"?

And the very fact that middle class white women are less happy with the fruits of their efforts speaks volumes.

The reality of things is that men were never the opressor, enjoying unfair advantages over women. Far from it, in fact.

And to compare the plight of white women to the plight of black Americans was preposterous on its face.

The sisterhood of feminism has realized that having it all hasn't produced the desired happiness. It's too little, too late as men have been cured`of their compulsion to protect, provide for, and defend women.

Unfortunately, for those who saw women as the key to usher in socialism, the experiment worked perfectly.

As a member of the "double minority" representing both demographics of the subject of this post, this news is not good to me.

sss said...

Speak for yourself Terry. I've lived in countries that have had no massive, organized feminist movements and I am SO grateful that the United States has had that.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

If SSS is thinking of Iran and saying that it could use some feminism, then I would agree.

I am far from sure that American feminists have been as clear as they could have been attacking the way women have been treated in countries where feminism does not exist.

Of course, I agree with Terry, and welcome her to the comments, because it is a simple fact that the rise of feminism corresponds directly to a decrease in the happiness of many women.

And one should not ignore the fact that feminism originated in radical leftist thinking.

For some the Marxism of the late 60s and early 70s wanted to overthrow the government and the capitalist order. For others it meant making marriage into a class struggle and introducing class warfare into America's kitchens.

The latter did happen, and it produced a wave of divorces and broken homes. Perhaps we have not measured all of the consequences of this intervention, but surely Terry is right that very little good came of it. Or, if you prefer, the little good that came of it came at a very high price indeed.

sss said...

No, I've not been to Iran. I know several women from there. I'm speaking of the countries throughout the Asian continent that I have travelled to that have not had massive, organized Feminist Movements like the US - and the women are not happy. Their may be laws protecting their rights (or not) but their cultures have not caught up with those laws. The mentality of the people remains very backwards and stuck.

Even the most anti-feminist of American women would not be able to tolerate living in those places.

That's why I think any priveleged Western woman who can "choose" to be anti-feminist is a joke - and an ungrateful one at that. They just have not had any experience around the world where Feminism has not taken off.

Obsidian said...

Hi Doc,
I've written about this topic following your lead on my blog, which can be found here:


And, just this morning I wrote another post about one of your favorite topics, President Obama, and which has to do with this topic. The link is here:


Would love to get you and your readers' thoughts. Thanks!