Sunday, September 20, 2009

The House Always Wins

So. This guy wants to know why women are so unhappy, why they're getting unhappier over time, and why they get less happy as they get older.

He presents the quandary: "Wherever researchers have been able to collect reliable data on happiness, the finding is always the same: greater educational, political, and employment opportunities have corresponded to decreases in life happiness for women, as compared to men."

He promises to tell us next week why this is. I'm worried about what the above statement portends. But I've actually got an answer of my own worked up, one that explains both the "decrease over time" and the "decrease with age" phenomenon. It's one that goes back to a grad school seminar on, believe it or not, revolts and revolutions in early modern Europe. In that seminar, we were introduced to some historian's theory of the "J-curve." I have only the haziest recollections, so someone else can fill me in, for certain. But here's what I remember. According to this historian, revolutions don't happen when things have been bad for a long, long time. By that time, people are used to it. Rather, they happen when there have been consistent improvements followed by a change for the worse, or expectations of improvements that suddenly fail to materialize. Imagine an upside-down letter J. Get it?

Now, imagine that women's** expectations of the limitless possibilities for their lives are thrown into contrast (a contrast that gets sharper as women age) with the realization that, in spite of (or perhaps because of?) all this, we're still expected to spend enormous amounts of our energy trying to be something we’re not: pretty, thin, young, compliant, non-swearing, perfectly-groomed, dependent, dumb, nurturing, self-sacrificing, quiet-voiced, unconditionally adoring, nonthreatening, patient, or simply never, ever angry. In other words: “feminine.” And the older we get, the more we realize that the house always wins in the end.

Yeah. I suppose that could make a woman a bit unhappy.

UPDATE: Rootlesscosmo provides a link in the comments to a site that exposes how the "problem" of women's unhappiness (often implicitly blamed on feminism) is based on dubious statistics, but keeps getting recycled every few years anyway. Kind of reminds me of that whole "you'll never get married after 35" thing. I'm now convinced that the premises upon which the question is based are specious, but still stand by my answer to this non-question -- if that's not too illogical.

**In light of the content of this post, I am bitterly amused that Blogger does not recognize the word "women's."

8 comments:

rootlesscosmo said...

For a skeptical view of those reliable figures:

http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1753

Collecting and over- or misinterpreting survey data on people who can and do speak for themselves is a shortcut to the conclusions the interpreter was trying to substantiate all along--so much more reassuring than actually paying attention to what they say.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Thanks for the link, RC. More proof that statistics can be made to say whatever someone wants them to. I do stand by my last paragraph, however. I believe that as women become more aware of the contrast between the postfeminist equality we're told we have achieved, and the manifest and persistent inequalities that remain, we're bound to be unhappy. Then again, unhappiness can be the best catalyst for change.

And yeah, this is about patriarchal equilibrium, again.

rootlesscosmo said...

I do stand by my last paragraph, however. I believe that as women become more aware of the contrast between the postfeminist equality we're told we have achieved, and the manifest and persistent inequalities that remain, we're bound to be unhappy. Then again, unhappiness can be the best catalyst for change.

I didn't mean to say I disagreed with this. On the contrary, your post is an example of saying what you think and describing what needs changing--just the kind of testimony from experience that the data harvesters neglect, with predictably (and, I would guess, assumed a priori) anti-feminist results.

haphazardmusings said...

Thanks for sharing!

While I can see where he's coming from in some respects (that the decrease of women's work in the home and the increase of men's contributions at home should make women happier), he misses the boat in a few ways. Foremost, to me, is his assertion that sex stereotypes no longer dictate what men and women should do. If that's the case, why are vocations like secretarial work, nursing, K-12 teaching, and child care (all, incidentally, undervalued and underpaid professions) still dominated by women? Why are there still articles that treat the stay at home dad like some freak of nature? Why do I get asked if I plan on having a career, even in the final stages of my PhD?

Stereotyping and its evil cousin sexism are still very much alive and well, and do cause great harm to men and women alike. I'm curious to see what else he has to say, although I doubt I'll agree with most of it!

Susan said...

Love the J curve -- or "revolution of rising expectations", I think Lawrence Stone called it!

And I think you're right. He's just selling books.

bitternsweet said...

Sing it, sister. "... as women become more aware of the contrast between the postfeminist equality we're told we have achieved, and the manifest and persistent inequalities that remain, we're bound to be unhappy."

I feel like I'm living this everyday.

Bavardess said...

I see this sort of shabby statistical argument dragged through the popular press every few years, and people too rarely question its underlying premises, so thanks for this.

In my view, women's greater access to education, political representation and employment opportunities has probably just made us a whole lot smarter and more aware of the many ways the deck is still stacked against us. Oh no, wait, what am I saying?? If I was only at home, barefoot and pregnant, I'd be able to re-connect with that elusive feminine bliss.

Historiann said...

Reliable studies show that married men are the happiest of all men, and that married women are the unhappiest of all women. That's a telling statistic, and one I readily believe.

Marriage has historically worked to benefit men at the expense of women, and unless we think that women are foolish or so self-deluding that they don't notice...they're going to be less happy about the arrangement.

I wonder too how much of this comparison "over time" has to do with anxieties or frustrations having to do with aging. Not only is aging something that can be depressing sometimes, women are subjected to pressures about their aging that men just aren't.

(Sorry to be late to the party. Interesting post!)