Getty Images // A smiling Gloria Steinem.
In a recent column, the Guardian’s Jessica Valenti takes aim at our culture’s fixation on the happiness of women.
She argues that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with whether or not feminism makes women happier because happiness is not the point.
After all, a social justice movement seeks justice, not contentment. The truth is a little unhappiness is good for the soul — and the movement. When I started Feministing, it wasn’t because I was happy: it was because I was frustrated. There’s nothing “happy” about fighting to end rape, to end discrimination, or for the right to be considered capable enough to decide what happens to our own bodies.
Following the publication of a study back in 2009 which showed that by some metrics women’s happiness has declined in the last 35 years, there was much discussion about why this is the case and whether it matters.
In Salon, Rebecca Traister told us to “screw happiness” because: “Unhappiness is propellant; disappointment and dismay prompt us to work for a better grade, to ask for a promotion or seek a new job, to search for a more affordable or comfortable abode, to go out at night and meet someone new, to try to get pregnant or decide not to have another kid.” Naomi Wolf argued that feminists are fighting for more satisfaction for women, and not happiness.
I agree with these women that a measurement of the current happiness of women is not grounds upon which we can the success of feminism. Undoing thousands of years of patriarchy was not going to happen without growing pains, and it makes perfect sense that those women who are working the hardest to break down boundaries and reshape society into something more egalitarian are the very ones who will be bearing the brunt of the stress and frustration. When you think about it, the fact that women are less happy can be read as a positive sign of feminism’s effectiveness: real change has begun.
But I don’t think this means, as they suggest, that we should totally dismiss happiness altogether as a goal of the women’s movement. I know happiness has taken on a flimsy reputation in popular culture in recent years, but I still believe that happiness, joy or contentment, or whatever you want to call it, is one of the spoils of the struggle for justice.
In Traister’s essay, she refers to the many ways women are presented with contradictory advice about how to achieve happiness. Get married. Don’t get married. Have kids. Don’t have kids. It’s true. The problem is that she doesn’t acknowledge that much of that advice is still framed by old-fashioned ideas, and our current struggle to break free from them. Yes, it is hard to be a happy feminist woman in America right now. But when I fight for reproductive rights and better parental policies and less sexual violence I am fighting for a tomorrow when women are happier.
Valenti makes a distinction between justice and contentment. I don’t think we should separate the two; it’s just a matter of ordering them correctly. We fight for justice now so future generations can enjoy more contentment later.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.
Why Shouldn't Feminists Be Happy?