Feminism: The Pursuit of Happiness

I almost decided not to link to this post by Kathleen Pye at Fem2.0 because she keeps referring to “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as a line from the Constitution, when it’s actually from the Declaration of Independence. Still, this is worth thinking about:

A 2009 study by Stevenson and Wolfers suggested that women’s subjective happiness has declined over the past 35 years, despite large objective gains resulting from the women’s movement. Their findings remain consistent regardless of income, marital status, race, and in relation to other industrialized nations. Most startling, the subjective happiness of women, which was higher in the 1970′s, had slipped below that of men.

Pye decries attempts to blame feminism for women’s declining happiness. I wonder if there isn’t something in this line of thought, though—just not the way she or the writers she criticizes mean.

In fighting for equality, women left behind rigidly-defined roles, and knowing your place can be very comforting, even if that place ultimately devalues and objectifies you. Maybe our culture is in the midst of a transitional period, in which women have abandoned their previous roles but not yet built a new place for themselves. Our children or grandchildren may look back on the last few decades (or the last century) and recognize that the women of our time fought a cold war of sorts against inequality—a war that unsettled and drained them but ultimately resulted in net gains for both women and the culture at large.

If this proves true, this current downward trend in women’s happiness will turn out to be just the cost of freedom. As Pye says:

People are born and granted liberty, and provided the opportunity to pursue their own subjective happiness. Thus, freedom is a ‘prerequisite’—in order to be happy we require our liberty.