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Oct. 1 2009 - 9:58 am | 83 views | 1 recommendation | 12 comments

Happyless: What’s up with women these days?

Two women seated on bench, interior

These chicks were happier? by George Eastman House via Flickr

Quite a bit has been written lately about women being increasingly unhappy and why this may be (take a gander at Maureen Dowd’s “Blue is the New Black,” Arianna Huffinton’s “The Sad, Shocking Truth About How Women Are Feeling,” and Marcus Buckingham’s “What’s Happening to Women’s Happiness?“). Commentators are responding to a very perplexing new study—appropriately titled “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness”—by Wharton’s Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers.

In a nutshell, the authors initially hypothesized that women should be happier today than in previous decades, seeing as we’ve seen gains in so many facets of life including increased control over fertility, more opportunities in the labor force, higher wages, sexual liberation, etc. You’d think we’d be ecstatic. Instead, over the last 35 years women report being increasingly less happy, both in absolute terms and relative to men. The authors take a few stabs at possible explanations but ultimately throw their hands up in the air, leaving an explanatory vacuum we in the blogosphere are only too happy to fill.

In attempting to understand why women are so damn unhappy, I thought about myself. I do this all the time anyway, but this time I tried to convince myself it was in the name of scientific inquiry.

More about me: I can vote, I don’t need a man’s permission to get a job, and no one is supposed to pinch my ass at work. I may sound flippant, but these are no small feats. And although my generation is known for being completely ungrateful to the bra-burning feminists of yore, I’m deeply thankful for their accomplishments. Promise.

But for all this liberation, on a mundane, day-to-day level all I feel is anxiety—deep anxiety, all the time, about all facets of my life.

It started with the mixed messages. My immigrant parents pushed me to succeed at school; they told me I could be anything I wanted to be and they made spectacular sacrifices to help me along. But I also vividly remember my mom telling me to let my romantic interests think they’re smarter and more successful than me. Men don’t like to lose, she warned. Given that she came of age in socially conservative Soviet Russia, I’ve always taken her advice on these matters with a grain of salt. Still, there’s plenty of evidence right here in the United States that many men don’t feel comfortable earning less than their significant others.

Matters of the heart put aside for a moment, at least I’m supposed to have every opportunity to succeed in the workplace, right? I got better grades than my male peers, the studies say, and every company wants to improve its image by hiring more women. And yet, women still earn less than men (78 cents to the man’s dollar, but who’s counting?). Women are underrepresented in government, in business, in academia—in all the places that I’ve been taught matter.

I don’t see many women who “have it all.” Only 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. And of the senior female managers at those companies, a third never marry and almost 70 percent don’t have children. Plus, there are Mommies at War: one side telling me that if I don’t stay home with my children I will permanently ruin their lives and miss out on the unique glories of womanhood; the other side warning me that if I do stay home with my children no one will talk to me at cocktail parties and I will lose the respect of my husband, other women, society, and myself. The Daddies, apparently, are spared the savagery of War.

I wish I could believe that the “second shift” (housework on top of paid work) was now equitably distributed, but even if men are doing more household labor than before it’s still mostly women who are ultimately responsible for the home and child-rearing. When women marry the number of hours they spend on household responsibilities increases, while when men marry their household work hours decrease. Women are the ones that leave work to drive their sick kids to the doctor. Women are much more likely to interrupt their careers to take parental leave than men (the same is true in Europe, even though paternity leave is a more prevalent option there). Women are more likely than men to work part-time.

Perhaps there are women who “want” to make these career sacrifices. Perhaps they don’t even see them as sacrifices. But from the vantage point of my mid-twenties, I can’t imagine that I will ever want to be the one to do the majority of the housework, be responsible for the majority of the child raising, or make the majority of career sacrifices. Then I worry that perhaps my lack of enthusiasm for these sacrifices means I’m going to make a terrible mother. Or that I’m doomed to be an old maid.

The traditionalists have a point. In some ways, things were much simpler when we had clearly defined gender roles: male breadwinner, female breadmaker. But this study found that happiness levels declined for both working women and stay-at-home moms. In any case, it’s too late. I don’t know how to make bread, and I have little interest in learning. And even if I gave into the worldview of the Caitlin Flanagans of the world—that all women secretly want to be Martha Stuart, and that perhaps women should love their inner housewives instead of loathe them—I wouldn’t want to give up my professional passions. I literally couldn’t give up my professional ambitions, not without giving up a big part of myself, a big part of my happiness.

But living in a country with no paid parental leave, no public child care, a fierce Mommy-track, and an intensive parenting culture, I just don’t know of many women who didn’t have to give up something. At the very least, give up more than the men in their lives did.

So what’s a girl living in a “postfeminist” world to do these days? Do I focus on my career, at the supposed expense of my future children? Will I be able to find a partner who will share the responsibilities at home, take an equal amount of parental leave, relocate if my career necessitated it? Or should I be pragmatic and focus on creating a “flexible” career for myself, one that will allow me to combine work and family life with greater ease, but probably at the expense of prestige and pay?

Recent findings about declining female happiness don’t surprise me at all. Previous generations of women likely felt that their situations were improving and would improve further over time. I know my situation is much better than it was for previous generations of women, but I’m not that confident that it will improve much further—not without profound changes in our society. That uncertainty just adds fuel to my personal anxiety. And I have a strong feeling that various incarnations of uncertainty and anxiety ultimately account for this very modern paradox of declining women’s happiness.

- Liz


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    Wish I had some comfort to offer. :-)

    Not having kids has spared me many of the toughest choices you’ll face if you do. As for the rest? As I think Gloria Steinem once said, we’re becoming the men we once wanted to marry.
    (That means accomplished, but might also mean exhausted.)

    Women now are, I think, burdened with insane expectations (let alone hopes) of what they can reasonably and sanely accomplish in one lifetime, let alone if they add parenthood and a rigid 2-weeks-year-vacation, no paid mat. leave, U.S.-style workplace on top of that.

    No one in their 20s wants to hear it, but the truthful chorus seems to be…you can “have it all” — sequentially. Not all at once. If women are utterly miserable, they need to examine what they expect(ed) and what current social policy or workplace behaviors actually support the accomplishment of those expectations. If they’re simply being wishful, they’re bound to be unhappy.

    If the man/woman you marry and have kids with refuses to do a lot of that shared work, that’s a separate and additional battle to fight. The sad truth is that almost anyone who really craves high-level professional success or income needs a “wife” — someone to fill the fridge, change the diapers, gas the car, make the dental appointments, etc. If you can afford to hire a “wife”, you will. It’s when you are caught with insufficient income or inflexible partners it gets embattled.

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      Ah, yes. I remember a Women’s and Gender Studies Professor, a straight woman, once telling me what we all really need is a “wife,” which, as you point out, refers to someone who acts as the Project Manager of the household, takes care of the practicalities, and lets you go pursue your professional dreams. In a similar vein, a friend recently told me he overheard a group of guys on a commuter train talking about how busy they were and how they couldn’t keep track of everything- like social engagements, appointments etc- and one of them said: “What you need is a wife. I just got married and now my wife deals with all that for me.” Sigh.
      - Astri

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    Yes – I think you hit the nail on the head. It is both a much better time to be a woman, and a really, really hard time to be a woman. I would not be surprised to see the numbers start to show less happiness for men now too, given the current sea-change in the scope of their roles. But I remain hopeful that both genders can rise up to get the long-awaited social changes started – that we can smother some of the forces at work and home designed to keep us miserable, and choose otherwise. And much of the task will mean accepting personal responsibility for forging the way (so that the next generation of women AND men can be grateful for all that we have done to finish the job).

    Amy (www.equallysharedparenting.com)

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    Not sure why a wife doing all that stuff is a bad thing; if one person has more time, energy or interest, who cares who it is? The division of labor in our family of two is pretty old-school but it doesn’t bother me at all. We’re both very clear who’s contributing what and we make sure to thank one another for it.

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    Liz and Astri,

    I realize this is Liz’s post, although I read your blogs occasionally and see it is a joint effort.

    The double-bind you describe where women experience difficulties balancing career and family, assumes a heterosexual relationship, within a nuclear family setting. I realize you were divulging your personal experiences to argue these difficulties. With that being said, above all feminist thinking is the importance of autonomous decision. If a woman chooses to have both a career versus a job, she also has the power to choose marry a husband not an additional child, who requires her imbalanced care-taking.

    A large portion of perpetuating gender norms binaries deals with decisions made by women and men. Moreover, I wonder how a feminist woman could possibly marry a man who did not believe in egalitarian living. The cross-over between the social world and the passion of lovers surely exists. My recommendation is that heterosexual women who want to “have it all” ascertain the ways to make an egalitarian marriage work, before making career choices in light of marriage and family choices.

    Lastly, “sacrifices” is an interesting word to use about women’s careers and families. The word sacrifice implies a loss incurred. However a child being raised by a working mother is not necessarily a loss to the child’s well-being or parental benefits. Rarely within “family values” discussions around conservative dinner tables do you find a man being questioned for his vocational desires. Sometimes entertaining thoughts alone, such as needing to sacrifice either career or work perpetuates the gender norm binaries. As a feminist, I simply do not consider my career ventures as disadvantages to my future children’s upbringing. I simply see my advances as the essential component to pursuing my feminist desires, and a positive example for my children. My feminist desires include career and children. That is not to say that a housewife is any different, it is rather to say that autonomous decisions will always be the forefront of feminism. Personal pursuits will always be respected, if one respects their own.

    As a note, the photograph attached to your blog uses the title “chick”. I was just curious if you had chosen that caption, because when I searched the photograph it had a separate title. I would respectfully suggest that in the future you choose different language besides anti-feminist rhetoric when writing a “feminist” blog.



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      Hey Christina,

      Thanks for your response. Let me try to address a few things you bring up.

      1) Sure, feminists have choices, as do all men and women. Feminists can choose to marry or not, have children or not. Every “choice,” however, is made within a social context. You say that a feminist woman would not possibly marry an un-egalitarian male, but “egalitarianism” is difficult to pin down. A man expressing egalitarian VIEWS, may very well in practice fall into more traditional gender roles. It happens (see “The Second Shift”).

      2) Perhaps I wasn’t clear in my musings on “sacrifices.” I don’t think I imply that working women disadvantage their children. I certainly don’t mean to! I’m only saying that too often it’s mothers who make sacrifices–by way of putting their career on the back-burner, working part-time, choosing a more “flexible” profession–than fathers. That’s the norm in our culture. Which is why, as you point out, fathers are never questioned about whether their work responsibilities interfere with their fathering responsibilities. Women face this scrutiny all the time.

      Your desires include having a career and children. So do mine! But, unfortunately, I think that’s easier said than done (particularly in a culture that has different expectations for what it entails to be a mother versus a father)…And that’s really all I was trying to get at. Hope that addresses some of your concerns.

      Lastly: “chick.” I don’t think there’s anything inherently anti-feminist about the word. Is there? Personally, I think it’s about context. If the word is used in a generally anti-feminist tirade, I could see why someone would be offended. But it’s clearly not being used in that way here.

      Again, thanks for writing in.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    Thank you for your response. There forums are important for dialogue regarding these feminist topics and today’s society.

    Yes, I did acknowledge the social world that contributes to decisions people (“lovers”) make. I acknowledge the trying decisions of both women and men. I am merely commenting on your blog, from your perspective, as a white, heterosexual (so it seems by your blog), middle-class woman. I also keep in mind I am speaking from a white, feminist perspective. I carefully worded my first post, using myself as an example, not the prototype of women’s behavior across all backgrounds. These circumstances are not the same for all women. That is why “choice” is an important feminist concern. Because some women do not have “choice” but rather they have “options” to consider. Perhaps a woman has to marry a man to feed her children; that is an example of an option versus a choice. I place no judgment women in poverty who are in dire circumstances. I do however place responsibility on privileged and educated women to uplift an egalitarian world. This assertion assumes these women consider themselves feminists. Some women have the ability to choose a husband who uplifts feminist agendas. Everyone is subject to human error, and learns from those mistakes. A feminist with a privileged background, such as myself, has a responsibility to always make her own choice and to help other women be able to make choices versus options. That is my feminist agenda, and one that is widely shared by feminists, regardless of race, class, gender, and/or sexuality.

    Perhaps a social context is lacking egalitarianism in a chosen partner or not. I did not say that a feminist woman would not marry an un-egalitarian male. I said I could not understand how one could marry an un-egalitarian and not at least expect trials and tribulations. To marry a man without similar principles might lead to distress in a marriage. Certainly the discourse of marriage is not set in stone, although some blatantly unequal marriages begin every day. Moreover, the “choice” to marry someone can either perpetuate, or help to terminate, a “second shift” or rather an imbalanced marriage. My point was that these decisions of “who” one marries should be considered with great scrutiny if the woman wants both career and family. A woman outside the middle- and upper-class might not even be considering the work/family balance, but rather how she will feed her children. Let me once again mention the middle-class, white, feminist perspectives these blogs are evoking. I am acknowledging my own privilege, although with an informed perspective.

    Egalitarianism is a simplistic concept imparting equality for all. It could and does mean a myriad of things to different people. Ultimately egalitarianism and feminism impart autonomy as the determinate of equality. Equality within a marriage could mean the woman washes the dishes and the husband folds the laundry. A husband is half of an equal marriage. It could mean that the woman works and the father stays at home with the children. Equality is perceived differently across marriages and other relationships. My point is that the feminist agenda is to adhere to choices that will promote egalitarianism in their own lives whenever possible. Social context exists, but they can no longer be the excuse for middle-class people with privilege. Unequal marriages have choices to either exist or terminate. Those choices are innumerable. The ultimate goal of feminism is autonomous choice. That is the point. As I stated in my first post it is a hope that people would consider their life decisions with their spouse before marrying, as to be in accordance together.

    “These chicks were happier?” Lastly, “chick” is most certainly considered anti-feminist rhetoric. Consider what is being said when women are referenced as “chicks.” It is a term that inherently is referring to a small, delicate, and young animal. Therefore women are being referred to as such. I do not see it as an appropriate nickname but rather a pejorative. If you are not using it that way, but instead wish to use a clever term to describe women, you are not using an uplifting term. I only suggest this because you might lose your feminist audience when placing such terminology at the beginning of your blog. Feminist theory asserts the English language’s origins and certain usages both established and perpetuate patriarchy and male-hegemony. Readings such as Susan Bordo, Adrienne Rich, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman are a great place to start reading about anti-feminist rhetoric and the English languages perpetuations of these oppressions.

    Thank you.


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    I mean these comments with respect. I know you are obtaining your PhD in Sociology, and I am also doing the same. As aspiring sociologists we are constantly exploring, analyzing, and debating. A researcher must admit her/his/zer attachment to research. It is the passion that keeps us talking. Of course these debates are heated, but I want you to know that I really think these correspondences are crucial to changing the imbalances across America. By imbalances I mean fighting against classism, racism, and standing up for feminism. One of my greatest professors, Dr. Marita McComiskey, once told me “You can’t do everything, but you can do something”. Regardless of who considers themselves a feminists or not, for fear of what they call overzealous activists or otherwise, we are all in this together. These topics and forums are important for outreach.

    There is nothing idealistic about my comments regarding marriage and choice for a middle-class woman. Marriage to a man or woman who does not place their spouse’s aspirations on an equal playing field to their own surely has consequences. Why would someone want to marry someone who shows them such obvious inconsiderate behavior? Surely relationship circumstances exist, however some middle-class women can make better choices for spouses if they want a balanced marriage. More middle-class women than ever are enrolled in higher education (exceeding male enrollment in medical schools and law programs), living on their own, and creating their futures.

    Idealism would be having false pretences about what your husband will do to help balance marriage/family, and then marrying the man. This alongside the assumption these women want egalitarian marriages. Then once being married to him become shocked over his disrespects. I am suggesting that heterosexual women stop trying to “fix” men into becoming “marriage material.” Instead I suggest that women put their foot down and walk away. The intricacies of love may be difficult to overcome, however women have a responsibility in their agendas as well. Fretting over how you will balance family/work only goes as far as the person you marry or settle down with. If you want equality don’t settle with a sexist partner. That is not idealism that is self-respect. Self-respect should be foremost. If self-respect is idealism then call me John Lennon.

    As far as your “source” for “chick,” Amy Richards appears to be an academic however her “source” is personal conversations with co-workers. Be it those co-workers comments come from a feminist magazine, there is pivotal feminist theory argument surrounding these topics, as noted in my last blog. The forefront of the First Wave regarded altering American documents and their literature as integral in equalizing their rights in society. Amy’s grave underestimation of this issue is erroneous to feminist argument, and frankly belittles her status as a knowledgeable feminist. Amy said, “…there are bigger battles” than language debate. I would argue that is an ignorant statement. If there are “bigger battles” I would be curious to see Amy’s face if someone referred to her as a “chick.”

    Regardless of her grandiose sentiments of what constitutes an important “battle,” in your case “context” is a poor argument for using words such as “chicks,” because you are attempting to pose “important” issues surrounding women and life/work balance. My point is that your context might be a poor one, deterring people from reading further.



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    this article made me cry… because it’s true… it made me realise it doesn’t have to be this way!!!!

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We’re two twenty-somethings who joined the real world armed with diplomas worth a combined half million dollars from Middlebury College—only to find out that we didn’t have a clue. No one prepared us for the inflexibility of the whole workplace set-up. No one warned us that the Mommies were at War, or that employers still assumed men were okay seeing their kids every other week, or that the U.S. doesn’t guarantee paid parental leave, vacation, or sick leave. The current work-life model isn’t working. Let’s talk about it.

In 2007, we started a non-profit called The Lattice Group, which aims to bring awareness about work-life issues to young people, so if you can’t get enough of our musings on True/Slant check out http://thelatticegroup.org.

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