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.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.
- The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
- The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
- It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.