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Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Why feminist wives are unhappy

Why feminist wives are unhappy.

"In The Feminine Mystique, the late Betty Friedan attributed the malaise of married women largely to traditionalist marriages in which wives ran the home and men did the bread-winning. Her book helped spark the sexual revolution of the 1970s and fueled the notion that egalitarian partnerships—where both partners have domestic responsibilities and pursue jobs—would make wives happier. Last week, two sociologists at the University of Virginia published an exhaustive study of marital happiness among women that challenges this assumption. Stay-at-home wives, according to the authors, are more content than their working counterparts. And happiness, they found, has less to do with division of labor than with the level of commitment and "emotional work" men contribute (or are perceived to contribute). But the most interesting data may be that the women who strongly identify as progressive—the 15 percent who agree most with feminist ideals—have a harder time being happy than their peers, according to an analysis that has been provided exclusively to Slate. 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...

Forty-one percent of all the working wives surveyed said they were happy, compared with 38 percent of the progressive working wives. The same was the case when it came to earnings. Forty-two percent of wives who earned one-third or more of the couple's income reported being happy, compared with 34 percent of progressive women in the same position. Perhaps the progressive women had hoped to earn more. But they were less happy than their peers about being a primary breadwinner—though you might expect the opposite. Across the board, progressive women are less likely to feel content, whether they are working or at home, and no matter how much they are making...

The conservative explanation, of course, is that the findings suggest that women don't know what they really want (as John Tierney implied in the New York Times, and Charlotte Allen suggested in the Los Angeles Times). Feminism, they argue, has only undermined the sturdy institution of marriage for everyone. The feminist and liberal argument is that reality hasn't yet caught up to women's expectations. Women have entered the workforce, but men still haven't picked up the domestic slack—working wives continue to do 70 percent or more of the housework...

Equal division of labor seems not to correlate strongly with happiness [which suggests the feminist argument is wrong - the conservative explanation is brushed aside without evidence]... 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... the more you scrutinize a relationship, the more likely you are to find fault with it. The study's authors, W. Bradford Wilcox and Steven Nock, speculate that fault-finding on the part of wives makes it hard for men to do the emotional work that stabilizes marriages. Meanwhile, traditionalist women—a significant portion of whom are Christian—expect less emotional work from their husbands, Wilcox and Nock speculate, which makes it easier for them to shake off frustrations, and less likely to nag. Whether or not any of this is the case, we do know that traditional marriages have the advantage of offering clearly defined roles. And traditionalist wives have a peer group fundamentally in agreement about what it wants and expects from husbands, creating a built-in support system.

Consider the evidence that evangelical women—who in general endorse traditional gender roles—are better at adjusting psychologically to situations they don't find ideal than feminists are. Studies of evangelical wives who have to work for financial reasons show that, as rigid as gender roles are in their community, women are fairly adept at being what sociologist Sally Gallagher calls "pragmatically egalitarian." That is, they continue to be happy with the division of labor, and to see their husbands as providers, even though they'd prefer to be at home...

It may be, too, that traditional marriage today is happier than it was, thanks to feminism. Traditionalists have been able to maintain the pre-Freidan goals, but all the societal movement in the other direction has had a freeing effect on their marriages, too. (That is, Dad still works and Mom stays at home, but thanks to the general liberalizing of society, Dad can feel OK about helping more at home and Mom can feel OK about having a chance to work more, too.) In other words, their goal has stayed the same (that is, maintaining traditional marriage roles), but they can pursue it under much less draconian circumstances. No wonder they're happier. They're free-riders on the women's movement (though they'd deny it), whereas feminists have descended into a tangle of second guesses and contradictions...

A progressive-minded woman doesn't just have higher expectations; she's more likely to pay attention to every setback, and see her husband's failure to listen at dinner as evidence of larger inequity. Meanwhile, the paradox of rising expectations can make real differences seem bigger even as they grow smaller.
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