Friday, October 23, 2009


That's what Judith Warner suggests in her latest Domestic Disturbances column, "When We're Equal, We'll be Happy." Read it here. Warner writes in response to what she calls the "whole cultural brouhaha caused by the news ... that despite all the objective improvements to their lives over the past four decades, women today appear to be less happy than they were in 1972."

In spite of various empirical studies showing that women are less happy than they were decades ago (such as here), Warner expresses skepticism, in part because emotions are difficult to quantify. She also notes that happiness is relative, that we tend to judge it "against our expectations of how we are supposed to feel and how good we think life is supposed to be." She suggests that in the early 1970s, women believed that things were getting better--or that least they were about to "come together" ... But, Warner concludes, that hasn't really happened.

Warner quotes a recent publication by the Center for American Progress that depicts what she calls a "bleak portrait of women's non-progress in our day." She cites the wage gap, sex-segregation in education and the workforce, and stereotypes that "steer most women into low-paid, low-status, low-security professions." Warner continues:
Women pay more for health insurance than men, have more extensive health needs than men, and suffer unique forms of discrimination in their coverage. (Women may be denied coverage because they had a Caesarean delivery or were victims of domestic violence — both “preexisting conditions.”) Regardless of the number of hours they work, they continue to do far more caretaking and housekeeping work at home than do their husbands. And discrimination against mothers (but not fathers) in the workplace is all but ubiquitous.
Warner goes on to clear feminism of blame for this rather sad state of affairs, declaring these facts " indicators of all the ways in which society has failed women, most importantly... by failing to address the needs of working families."

It's a powerful column, and well worth a read in its entirety. I'd appreciate it even more, however, if Warner spent some time unpacking what she means by "equality," remembering that--technically speaking--women have achieved formal equality before the law (with very few exceptions that relate to particular contexts). Maybe her reference to the ways society has failed to respond to the needs of working families is the key to what she means by equality--and the lack of it. Indeed, perhaps the problem is one of various types of anti-discrimination laws not being enforced in a meaningful way--in part because they cannot readily or easily be enforced in the context of our persistently patriarchal culture.


Naomi said...

How can we be happy, when we are required to be "Supermoms"? Men nowadays are less threatened by women joining the workplace, but they are by no means joining the private sphere and chipping in to help with what was traditionally thought of as "women's work". Therefore we come to the supermom era: the soccer mom who, after a few years at home with the baby, goes back to work but continues to handle the vast majority of the household and child care work, excepting of course the housework and child care that the husband enjoys doing and takes over. Therefore, the woman is doing two or three jobs while men sit on the couch drinking their beers and watching The Game. A woman is responsible for her job where she gets paid, child care job and home cleaning work. This is not a choice in most homes; it is a mandatory part of marriage. Plus, women have to stay in lower paid part time jobs in order to do their other two jobs with any type of success. The solution? Men need to pitch in and spend more time on family and home, and less time in the office, until the work load is fairly split between the two, just like work was split on the farm one hundred years ago, split equally between the two parties and where the men took care of the children and raised them himself.

Eve said...

Beyond the question of whether we are equal, I am not sure whether equality has anything to do with happiness. If equality is to mean equal treatment before the law, then it often requires women to assimilate – to be like men in order to be equal. If a woman wants to be treated equally in the workplace, she needs to express enthusiasm for same work men do; she needs disregard her family in the same way men do. In this sense equality requires women to make up the difference.

I am not contending that women and men should not have the same rights, but if we thought attaining those rights was the key to happiness then we were blind. Possessing rights does little to achieve change. I may have the right to be the President, but without the enormous number of privileges men have, I have very little chance of ever achieving that goal.

One reason why “formal equality” may lead to unhappiness is that it has forced women to shift their goals and set higher standards without providing them with the means to realize their objectives. In this land of opportunity, it can be very frustrating to have the requisite ambition but lack the tools to grasp the opportunity.