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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.

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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Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

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Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

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  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

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  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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