One of the strangest anti-feminist stereotypes to me – among the Birkenstock-wearing and bra-burning – is the idea that we’re unhappy. Angry. Bitter. Both because the foundation of the insult is the assumption that women should be perpetually happy, and because the truth is that the culture doesn’t actually mind if women are unhappy – so long as we keep it to ourselves.
Women’s distress directed inward – from eating disorders to feelings of inadequacy – keeps the status quo moving along, with diet pills selling through the roof and women asking for promotions far less often than their male counterparts. But when our dissatisfaction takes an outward turn, people get uncomfortable. Then, women’s emotions are “hysterical” or over-the-top. Anything less than a bubbly disposition means that we’re “bitches”. Hell hath no fury like a man who finds a woman displeasing.
So you’ll excuse my skepticism when those who don’t mind women’s quiet suffering are suddenly super-concerned with women’s happiness levels. That suspicion only gets deeper when the root of women’s unhappiness is said to be – wait for it – our increasing social freedom.
After a recent talk I gave in Pennsylvania, I had the real-life equivalent of what every feminist-minded woman on the internet has experienced: a young man came up to inform me that a study exists which, he claimed, shows that American women have become more unhappy since feminism came into the picture. I know this study – the full report shows a much more nuanced picture of what women’s happiness and life satisfaction are really made of – and how much hay a certain type of guy likes to make over it.
The obsession with women’s happiness – and only women’s happiness – is troubling. Underlying the constant questioning of “will we ever be satisfied”, or men patronizingly telling us to smile on the street, is the subtle insistence that women should be content with the less-than-equal lot we’ve been given in life. And, even more annoyingly, that we are not just to be satisfied with this inequality but cheerful in the face of it.
It’s pointless to argue with people like that. The more important question to ask ourselves isn’t “Why aren’t women happy after feminism?”. It is “Who cares?” – “happiness” isn’t the goal of feminism.
After all, a social justice movement seeks justice, not contentment. The truth is a little unhappiness is good for the soul – and the movement. When I started Feministing, it wasn’t because I was happy: it was because I was frustrated. There’s nothing “happy” about fighting to end rape, to end discrimination, or for the right to be considered capable enough to decide what happens to our own bodies. Feminists aren’t pleased to point out the injustices of the world, but we know it’s necessary for change.
As Rebecca Traister wrote of the aforementioned study, “Unhappiness is propellant; disappointment and dismay prompt us to work for a better grade, to ask for a promotion or seek a new job, to search for a more affordable or comfortable abode, to go out at night and meet someone new, to try to get pregnant or decide not to have another kid.”
It could be true that women report more unhappiness since feminism’s gains of the 60s and 70s. Maybe the trade-off for having our eyes opened to inequality is feeling a little miffed about getting the short end of the stick. Dissatisfaction seems a fairly normal reaction to injustice.
Buddhist Pema Chodron writes that constantly seeking happiness can actually throw us in a cycle of unhappiness and disappointment.
Instead of asking ourselves, ‘How can I find security and happiness?’ we could ask ourselves, ‘Can I touch the center of my pain? Can I sit with suffering, both yours and mine, without trying to make it go away? Can I stay present to the ache of loss or disgrace – disappointment in all its many forms – and let it open me?’ This is the trick.
While I don’t mind being a little unhappy as a feminist, I admit there are downsides. The realization that there is so much work to be done isoverwhelming. But the itch of discontent makes us better: we fix things, seek out new adventures, and think about new ways of living our life. Ignorance may be bliss – but it’s not the truth.