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Has Feminism Been Bad For Women?

Ross Douthat wrote a column yesterday bemoaning the decline of female happiness. The takeaway is that women are less happy, both in absolute terms and relative to men, than they were before Betty Friedan published her manifesto. "All the achievements of the feminist era may have delivered women to greater unhappiness," Ross writes.

That is, I think, what we'd call a correlation/causation error. There's no evidence that women wouldn't be much more unhappy without the advancements of the past 50 years. Same goes for men, for that matter. Both groups would be, among other things, quite a bit poorer. And this data would be measuring something else for women: Happiness at home, rather than at home and at work. Meanwhile, some of the data directly contradict Ross's reading. "Male happiness has inched up, and female happiness has dropped," he says. But that's not universally true. The paper (pdf) he's using, by the economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, contains this graph:


What's striking about that graph is not that women are less happy. It's that men and women alike -- that is to say, everyone -- have grown markedly less happy over that time period. Women's satisfaction has dropped a bit more quickly, but not all that much. And the two sexes are much closer to each other than to their 1960s-era selves. Or take this data, on suicide rates:


As the authors say, "contrary to the subjective well-being trends we document, female suicide rates have been falling, even as male suicide rates have remained roughly constant through most of our sample." This is the sort of thing that economists might call "revealed preference." Happiness is a subjective measure. Suicide rates aren't.

Which is all to say that data this broad are, inevitably, a bit of a Rorschach test. A lot of variables go into individual happiness, after all. Among them, expectations. The Danish are famous for being very happy because they expect very little. Women might be less happy because they now have the opportunity to desire more from life. Or maybe not. The best we can say, really, is that the data are sort of interesting. What we can't say is that it confirms our suspicion that feminism was bad for women.

By Ezra Klein  |  May 27, 2009; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Charts and Graphs  
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It looks to me like people's sense of happiness falls in pretty direct correlation with the advancement of policies Douthat advocates. The end of the Vietnam War provides men some relief, then there's the generation-long march toward increasing income inequality, reduced social mobility, and increasing uncertainty. Of course people get unhappy - most of us are neither plutocrats nor, like Douthat, religious zealots of a kind who favor unnecessary suffering.

I'd love to see data for this last decade, to see what happens after the relief many people felt during Clinton's administration; even though their objective conditions didn't improve much, if at at all, a lot of us felt less like the system was at war on us. But that didn't last.

Posted by: Ceri | May 27, 2009 9:48 AM | Report abuse

This is an excellent, clearheaded analysis of the issue - I particularly like the fact that Klein points out the correlation/causation fallacy. They teach you that in Intro Psych but people still screw it up...

Posted by: echozebra | May 27, 2009 9:56 AM | Report abuse

Great, thanks for calling this guy out on his sneaky use of statistics. It drives me so crazy when columnists selectively cite statistics that they barely even understand in order to prescribe some pet policy. (Like the guy who wrote about early marriage a month or two ago... epic statistical fail.) This study raises lots of complex and interesting questions, and instead of making an honest and thorough examination, Ross chooses to "cite" a few claims that aren't even really supported by the study, and then use them to argue for the return of sexual stigma in society. That totally came out of nowhere and the relationship to the actual study is tangential at best. Especially since, as Ross himself notes, single motherhood does not explain all or even most of womens' declining happiness.

I have not read the actual paper (thanks for linking to the PDF btw) so I can't comment further except to say that all editorial boards really ought to have a resident statistician to call columnists out on their bullsh*t.

Posted by: lilybelle2 | May 27, 2009 10:03 AM | Report abuse

It is interesting in a world where the happiness of men and women have shifted downward in the last 30 years, Ross Douthat focuses only on the misery of women and wonders if it was feminism that caused the drop.

I wonder if it is Reaganomics that's the issue - the relentless focus on individualism, the pursuit of profits to the exclusion everything else,the rise in costs and stagnation of salaries across the middle class, the battles with the health insurance companies....

I've read Betty Friedan and I've grown up in the post-feminist world and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that feminism has given me a much richer, fuller life than I would have had in the heyday of the housewives.

Posted by: anne3 | May 27, 2009 10:16 AM | Report abuse

i wrote a long post on this.
which is a deeply, heartfelt issue for me.
but my message did not appear.
i hope that it will.
i greatly disagree with russ douthat
that the world, over the last forty years,
has been kinder and gentler to women.
i dont believe that it has.
i think women are suffering greatly in this culture.
the demands on women are greater than ever,
and women are overworked, overtired, over-using
cosmetic surgeries and practices of all kinds to feel
good about themselves and compete with other women.
i grew up in the sixties....and the myth that women could have everything, ended up coming true...but no-one calculated what the immense and pressurized cost would be on the psyche
and sanity of a woman...
not to mention that this society has fewer and fewer safety nets for women these days, so when they fall down into the well, they are really struggling.
the messages we are giving to young girls in this society are terrible.
thank G-d for michelle obama and sonia sotomayor.
the topic of a kinder and gentler world for women over the last forty years is something that deserves to be examined, under a very bright light.....especially for the generation of young women coming up now.

Posted by: jkaren | May 27, 2009 10:27 AM | Report abuse

one of the above commenters wrote that she is sure beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the life she has today, is a better one than she could have had in "the heyday of the housewives."
that is subjective....and no-one disagree with that.
certainly, no-one can disagree with the strides in equal rights and civil rights that have been made.
but having lived through both times, and having been a working mother my whole life, now at the age of sixty, when i look back at the era i grew up in, in the fifties and early sixties, i think that the women i knew then, were happier.
they were happier with their family life, they were happier with themselves.
and they were also surrounded with the support of mothers, aunts, sisters and brothers and neighbors they knew very well.
there was enormous support and familiarity for women.
there was less emphasis on how women looked.
and though it sounds strange, they seemed more assured and were more emotionally cared for. i know this may be hard to believe, but it seemed true to me.
all of this is very subective....but having grown up in those times, and seeing where all of these changes have brought us to, i have a lot of questions in my heart about the quality of life today for women....women of all ages.
i dont question the advances that have been made for equal rights over these past decades, but i do question the spiritual aspects of women's lives, and how they feel about themselves in relation to the world around them.
the more deeply connected a woman is, the more valued she feels, and the greater her safety net is. this counts for a great deal, for women of all ages, regarding their happiness, and their sense of happiness with themselves.

Posted by: jkaren | May 27, 2009 10:53 AM | Report abuse

While I agree with the overall point of this post, I don't think suicide rates unveil revealed preferences. Since the graph does not show an attempted suicide rate, it is likely that doctors have simply gotten better at saving people from the methods women tend to use. Women attempt suicide at far higher rates than men, but men commit suicide at 4 times the rate women do, because men tend to use guns and cars, while women tend to ingest poison.

Posted by: vim876 | May 27, 2009 10:56 AM | Report abuse

Great points, but I don't see a correlation/causation fallacy in the original work. As you briefly mention in regards to the Danish, expectations are closely tied to happiness. Feminism clearly raised expectations for women in the workplace, however, it failed to diminish the role of women in giving birth to children. Would this not be the hypothetical causation?

Posted by: staticvars | May 27, 2009 11:20 AM | Report abuse

How about a correlation between hours worked per week and happiness, among each gender?

Posted by: bluegrass1 | May 27, 2009 11:33 AM | Report abuse

I'm pretty sure Douthat just looked at the title of the paper and stopped there.

Posted by: chrismealy | May 27, 2009 12:06 PM | Report abuse

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