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Whoever Said that Feminism Was About Your Happiness?

Recently I had occasion to browse my collection of yellowed “second-wave” feminist paperbacks, from the late 1960s and early 1970s. I bought most of them at used book stores in grad school. “Vaginal Politics,” “Sappho was a Right-On Woman,” essays such as “Down with Sexist Upbringing,” “How to Freak out the Pope,” “The Politics of Sado-Masochistic Fantasies,” “We Are the Crazy Lady,” “I Want a Wife,” and “How to Write Your Own Marriage Contract.”

They feel like political antiques. Were feminists really this non-defensive and audacious, willing to churn up the foundations of their lives to follow the idea? It’s hard to imagine in the less hospitable climate today when, among other things, Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey proposes that we end the imagined abortion gravy train by reworking the definition of rape to exclude the date raped, drugged and unconscious.

You come across a lot of goals in this literature: autonomy, power, self-determination, equality, integrity, shackle-breaking, bra-burning and man-leaving.

 The one thing you don’t see is this: happiness.

Sure, unhappiness was often a motivation for women to become feminists. But it wasn’t the end goal of feminism. It doesn’t feature in the more mainstream documents, such as NOW’s 1968 “Bill of Rights” for women, which spends no time on the Pursuit of Happiness, focusing instead on women’s “control, dignity, self-respect, privacy,” and the realization of their “full potential.”

Happiness doesn’t feature in the more radical agendas either, such as the New York Radical Feminists manifesto, which prescribed that women construct “healthy, independent, assertive” alternative selves, and lives. Robin Morgan saw liberation as an “oppressed people raising their consciousness toward something that is the other side of anger, something bright and smooth and cool.” But not happy, per se.

Betty Friedan wrote in The Feminine Mystique, “surely there are many women in America who are happy at the moment as housewives. But happiness is not the same thing as the aliveness of being fully used.”

Friedan’s distinction was only amplified when feminism gained momentum in the early 1970s. Coming out of the new left crucible and student protests, it was a movement of subversion, dissent, resistance and struggle. 

Over time, however, the prime directive of feminism seemed to get inflected from power to happiness. The result is that today, when individual women find themselves struggling with the opportunities that feminism secured (and we’ve all had that struggle at some point), they become walking indictments of feminism. “You see,” the line goes, “feminism didn’t make women happy, after all.”

Part of the power-to-happiness inflection was the spirit of the times. By the mid-1970s, America was strung out on rage, and looked inward toward the I’m OK, You’re OK, self-improvement, physical fitness mood. Maybe I’ve not revolutionized the world, the mood went, but at least I can have awesome glutes.

Feminists themselves contributed to the inflection, as well. In the 1970s, they embraced the choice rhetoric, as abortion became the anchor of feminist politics, for better or worse.

Since then, the choice-happiness faux agenda has grown stronger, to the point that feminism seems sometimes to be only about trashy chick lit, making money, the Spice Girls, and drinking Chardonnay.

“Wasn’t feminism all about women having choices?” Not really. But you hear this rejoinder, for example, when feminists worry about women who “opt out” of career for childrearing. Together, choice and happiness essentially re-privatize the personal realm that feminists worked so hard to open to political scrutiny.

In 2006 Bradford Wilcox published research that measured wives’ marital happiness. He concluded that a “traditional” model of primary male breadwinning made women happier. The media gobbled it up. “Desperate Feminist Wives: Why Wanting Equality Makes Women Unhappy,” Slate summarized  à la mode.

The research itself was more complicated. Another researcher reviewed Wilcox’s data, and found that a large number of variables that measured traditionalism in the marriage accounted for a mere three percent of the variance in wives’ marital happiness, while two variables that measured a “husband’s emotion work” had an explanatory power over 17 times larger.

But, more to the point, the headlines blame feminism for not achieving a goal that wasn’t feminism’s to begin with. It’s like saying pole vaulting has failed to solve the healthcare crisis. 

A larger happiness preoccupation in our culture only amplifies things. Happiness almost rivals food as a nonfiction topic. I suspect that there’s something compensatory about both genres. The less happy and culinarily-fulfilled we are, the more we enjoy reading about happiness and food.

I like happiness. Really, I do.

But it’s just not the feminist issue. To paraphrase a feminist canard, circa 1968: Feminists needed happiness like a fish needs a bicycle.

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If not by a metric of happiness, then how do we gauge the emotional legacy of second-wave feminism in our lives?  I’m not talking about the vast policy and legal victories that are easy enough to tally, but the emotional legacy.

Maybe a fairer metric would be “aliveness” over happiness, to recall Friedan, or a feeling of self-determination. You might not be happy but at least your life will be your own, which is a kind of peace. The better life isn’t necessarily the happier one; the most happy life isn’t necessarily the most fulfilling one.

Or maybe the point of feminism was that you have the emotional pride of being someone who “represents,” in the sense of being a good role model and standing up for your people, whether or not that makes you happy. Chances are it won’t. Who knows, years later, you might experience a deferred happiness, inspired by the proud memory that you did it.

Some of any oppositional movement is akin to inter-generational struggles and progress in immigrant communities: You spend time in the barrel so that things can be better for your daughters and sons.

Other possible metrics: Did you have power? Did you contentedly exhaust yourself using up all of your talents and potential?

Were you occasionally brave when you would have preferred the convenience of capitulation, silence or appeasement? Did you expand your imagination about how men and women could live?  Did you enlarge your sympathies, become empathetic?

I pull out Gloria Steinem’s 1973 essay, Sisterhood. She wrote, “I have met brave women who are exploring the outer edge of human possibility, with no history to guide them and with a courage to make themselves vulnerable that I find moving beyond words.”

Cool. That beats happy any day.


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