Given that it is International Women’s Day, Maud Newton’s blog post today reads as particularly disheartening.
Newton links to Meghan O’Rourke’s essay in Slate entitled Desperate Feminist Wives: Why wanting equality makes women unhappy. O’Rourke refers to a recent study by sociologists at the University of Virginia on happiness within marriage. The study discovered that the “single most important factor in women’s marital happiness is the level of their husbands’ emotional engagement — not money, the division of household chores or other factors. The study also finds that women whose husbands earn the lion’s share of income, who don’t work outside the home, or who share a strong commitment to lifelong marriage with their husbands report the highest levels of marital happiness — in sharp contrast to academic conventional wisdom.” What the study seems to show is that when a wife’s expectations of marriage are in alignment with the marriage’s realities, she tends to be happy. And since in “traditional” marriages, the expectations of marriage tend to be more clearly defined and agreed to by both parties than in more “progressive” marriages (where things such as division of labor tend to be negotiated throughout the marriage), it is no surprise that the “traditional” wives claim to be happier.
But instead of seeing the study as evidence that the more narrow the gap between expectations and reality, the happier one tends to be (otherwise known as ‘aim low’), O’Rourke seems to use the data as an opportunity to jump on the ‘Now that Betty Friedan has died, it’s OK to bash her’ bandwagon. O’Rourke writes: “Feminist ideals, not domestic duties, seem to be what make wives morose. Progressive married women — who should be enjoying some or all of the fruits that Freidan lobbied for — are less happy, it would appear, than women who live as if Friedan never existed.”
She sings the praises of having low expectations: “The sexual revolution tried to free women and men from set-in-stone roles. But the irony turns out to be that having a degree of certainty about what you want (and being in a peer group that feels the same way) is helpful in making people happy. Having more choices about what you want makes you less likely to be happy with whatever choice you end up settling on. Choosing among six brands of jam is easy. But consumers presented with 24 types often leave the supermarket without making a purchase.” Right. Well, if those 6 jams so happen to be strawberry, peach, grape, raspberry, apricot and gooseberry, then fabulous, good for you, the lack of choice worked out really well. But if the 6 jams happened to be liver, onion, alum, ipecac, eye of newt and manure — well, you’d probably be wishing that you had a bit broader selection from which to choose.
Choice has enabled women to leave abusive relationships. Choice has enabled women to escape poverty. Choice has freed us from the notion that biology equals destiny.
And yes, the choices fought for by feminists like Betty Friedan have added a measure of complication to our lives. Sometimes it feels like navigating the modern marriage of equals is a lot of work. It is hard to determine the best division of labor and to figure out what paid work/childrearing combination works best. The “man wears pants, woman wears dress” approach would be a lot simpler. Ignorance, after all, is bliss.
So why stop there? Let’s ditch democracy. All of those choices about who to vote for — golly, that sounds complicated. I’m so confused. I wish that someone would just tell me to go and bake a pie or something.
Blaming the feminist movement for raising women’s expectations of what life can be is bunk.
Lobbying for fewer choices is bunk.
Telling women that happiness is simply a matter of aiming low is bunk.