Feminism has not made women unhappy. Expectations have risen, says stephanie coontz

The First Post, October 8, 2007
By Stephanie Coontz

A recent study shows that, on average, American men now report themselves happier than women do. This is the opposite of what polls found in the early 1970s, when women tended to report themselves happier than men.

The study has been greeted like manna from heaven by people who want to return to "traditional" gender roles, and has had the immediate effect of raising the happiness quotient of one group of Americans: Conservative radio talk show hosts who gleefully claim that it proves the feminist movement has made women less happy with their lives.

Of course, for the past 15 years, these very same people have been contending that women's empowerment has come at the expense of men, eroding their self-esteem, and decreasing their marital satisfaction as they have been forced to do more housework.

Women today are far less likely to report low self-esteem or depression than in the 1950s to 1970s

The new study finds that, on the contrary, today more men report themselves very satisfied with their lives than in the early 1970s. Researchers have discovered the same trends in women's and men's relative happiness in many industrial countries, including Britain. So perhaps the woman's movement has helped men more than women, relieving them of the burden of feeling they must be the sole breadwinners for their families and introducing them to the pleasures of less rigid definitions of masculinity.

But before we conclude that the feminist movement has made women less happy than they used to be, we need to recognise one important point. Self-reports of happiness vary according to people's expectations of how much satisfaction they are entitled to, making them much more subjective and variable than other measures of wellbeing.

Women today are far less likely to report low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness, poor health or severe depression than in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. So when we hear

that fewer women report themselves very happy today than in the early 1970s, it's important to remember that back then women had much lower expectations. Married women in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s often told interviewers that their marriage was happy because "he's never hit me" or he "hardly ever" spent his entire pay check at the local pub. Single women who answered Help Wanted ads for "perky college grad for typing" or "cheery receptionist wanted - must be attractive and well-groomed" counted themselves lucky if they weren't fired when they put on a few pounds around the middle.

Today, some women do feel pressured to "do it all" and feel frustrated when they can't. And most women have much higher expectations for good treatment - both at work and at home - than their mothers and grandmothers.

Take the question of marital satisfaction. Where women in the late 1960s said that happiness was having a husband who was industrious enough to be a good provider, women today want a husband who is

Women in the past wanted a good provider; women today want emotional support

emotionally supportive. Whether she believes that describes her husband is now the single best predictor of a woman's marital happiness. The second-best predictor is how fair she believes the household division of labour to be.

It is not surprising that these higher expectations lead women to feel disappointed if their husbands don't measure up. But the solution to these tensions is not to try to convince women to lower their expectations. Instead, let's continue to raise the percentage of men who rise to those expectations.

As I reported for The First Post in December last year, that's a win-win proposition for men as well as women, because studies show that when men are emotionally supportive and do more housework, their wives find them more attractive and are more likely to be in the mood for sex. Come to think of it, maybe it's precisely for this reason that more men report themselves happy today than in the 1970s.

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