A 2009 University of Pennsylvania study on “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” has been getting a bit of a workout in the media lately, largely as an antidote to the attention being paid to equal pay. The study is used to suggest that feminism has made women less happy. The study found that, from 1972 to 2005, the likelihood that women would report feeling “very happy” fell .15 of a percentage point per year, relative to men. Obviously, feminism is the only thing that happened between 1972 and 2005, and “Are you happy?” is not at all a dopey question.
Of all the ways there are to rebut this, you aren’t likely to hear one as strange as that offered by The Guardian‘s Ana Marie Cox on Friday night’s Real Time with Bill Maher. When Maher made a reference to the study, Cox said, among other things, that “Feminism isn’t about making women happy, to begin with,” which is a solid point, if a poor rebuttal. Then, she adds “Living is not about being happy, it’s about being fulfilled.”
From there, it devolved into a dudefest that culminated with Rob Lowe bragging about all of the pussy he’s rioted in over the years.
It’s not AMC’s fault that she was outnumbered by a Murderer’s Row of white male privilege (when the Republican Congressman is the least douchey guy on stage, you’ve got a problem), but when faced with this kind of derpitude, you don’t lead with “life isn’t about being happy,” or even with the similar “what the fuck kind of baby-assed question is ‘are you happy?'”
The study itself suggested that it’s a stupid-ass question, noting that:
In the context of the findings presented in this paper, women may now feel more comfortable being honest about their true happiness and have thus deflated their previously inflated responses. Or, as in Kahneman’s example, the increased opportunities available to women may have increased what women require to declare themselves happy.
It might also be helpful to ask what it means that, within the same study period, the suicide rate among women fell by a third, while the suicide rate among men ticked up by five percent. Why is feminism killing men?
Better yet, owning up to the stupid subjectivity of the metric, it might also be helpful to point out that the trend that this study identifies has brought women’s responses to the happiness question into equality with the men’s responses. A lot has happened since 1972, besides feminism, and it stands to reason that as women were forced into the workforce by stagnant wages, they would feel the misery of that equally. What feminism did, and does, is to try to make sure that, whether women have to go to work or want to go to work, they get a fair shake, and they don’t get harassed or assaulted. There’s a counter-factual argument that, in the absence of feminism, women would still have been forced into the workforce out of economic necessity, but without the protections the feminist movement has secured. Half the pay and a backrub from the boss!
The most relevant question, though, is how happy was Ana Marie Cox, after 40 years of feminism, to be defending the legitimacy of feminism to three white dicks? If there’s a better testament to the relevancy and vitality of feminism, it’s in the way that powerful white men of every stripe still go out of their way to attack it.