21st Century Feminism: Liberated but Unhappy

I'm a feminist, now what? Last month the New York Times ran an op-ed column that responded to some surprising findings about the happiness of the modern woman. In “Liberated and Unhappy,”Susan Etheridge reflected on the paper “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” written by economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. In the course of their research, the authors found that in spite of all the advancements women have enjoyed over the years, male happiness has “inched up and female happiness has dropped.”

What is even more surprising about these findings is that they indicate the exact opposite of what feminists predicted. Writer and seminary professor Mary Kassian described this very discrepancy on her blog, explaining that feminist Betty Friedan “pointed her finger at the male-female relationship and theorized that it was to blame. If only woman could leave the traditional role of homemaker behind, be educated and participate in the workplace on the same basis as man, be free to express herself sexually without any restraints, and have society free her from the burden of bearing and caring for children, THEN she would be happy.”

It would seem that Friedan’s goals have now been realized. Women are reportedly “wealthier, healthier and better educated than they were 30 years ago.” But the results she anticipated are nowhere to be found. Why is this?

Etheridge weighs the various possibilities, but she comes to an interesting conclusion:

“All this ambiguity lends itself to broad-brush readings. A strict feminist and a stringent gender-role traditionalist alike will probably find vindication of their premises between the lines of Wolfers and Stevenson’s careful prose. The feminist will see evidence of a revolution interrupted, in which rising expectations are bumping against glass ceilings, breeding entirely justified resentments. The traditionalist will see evidence of a revolution gone awry, in which women have been pressured into lifestyles that run counter to their biological imperatives, and men have been liberated to embrace a piggish irresponsibility.

There’s evidence to fit each of these narratives. But there’s also room for both.

Feminists and traditionalists should be able to agree, for instance, that the structures of American society don’t make enough allowances for the particular challenges of motherhood. We can squabble forever about the choices that mothers ought to make, but the difficult work-parenthood juggle is here to stay. (Just ask Sarah and Todd Palin.) And there are all kinds of ways — from a more family-friendly tax code to a more accommodating educational system — that public policy can make that juggle easier. Conservatives and liberals won’t agree on the means, but they ought to agree on the end: a nation where it’s easier to balance work and child-rearing, however you think that balance should be struck.”

They should also be able to agree that the steady advance of single motherhood threatens the interests and happiness of women. Here the public-policy options are limited; some kind of social stigma is a necessity. But a new-model stigma shouldn’t (and couldn’t) look like the old sexism. There’s no necessary reason why feminists and cultural conservatives can’t join forces — in the same way that they made common cause during the pornography wars of the 1980s — behind a social revolution that ostracizes serial baby-daddies and trophy-wife collectors as thoroughly as the “fallen women” of a more patriarchal age.”

* To read the whole op-ed piece, click here.

On some level, Etheridge’s conclusions are not off-base. We do need to decrease the number of single mothers in our country, and we should be aware of the ways that a career can negatively affect one’s family–for both men and women.

But I fear that Etheridge is also guilty of making the same mistake as Friedan–addressing the symptoms instead of the cause. This cultural phenomenon of “If we fix this, then we’ll be happy” reminds me of a woman who is never quite satisfied with her body. She diets and loses weight, but she’s still not happy so she gets breast implants. Then she’s still not happy so she gets a nose. But still, she is not happy so she gets a facelift. And the cycle goes on. As she nips and tucks and nips and tucks, she fails to address the true reason for her unhappiness.

Feminism is guilty of doing the same. It has made promises that it cannot deliver. As Proverbs 13:12 tells us, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” and that is exactly what we have witnessed here. It is one thing to be slightly unhappy with your circumstances, but it is quite another to have your expectations elevated, only to be let down. That is when despair sets in.

We see this dynamic all the time in marriages–a wife marries a man thinking he’ll be her knight in shining armor. When she discovers he is just a human who cannot complete her, in steps bitterness and resentment. Feminism is like that slightly chubby husband who smells kind of funny and leaves the toilet seat up. He may not be a bad husband at all, but he’s not what you were dreaming of either.

All of that to say, the problem here is not what feminism has achieved–the problem is the motivation behind it. In many ways feminism has been a good thing for women–women are now educating themselves and doing things for the world that they were never able to do before. That is a good thing.

But the movement went awry when it became woman-centered. Like any other false idol, it promised a salvation that lies in Christ alone. And as all idols do, it guaranteed that women would be happy if we just served ourselves a bit more. Etheridge demonstrated this very point with her own recipe for on-going improvements to the feminist movement. It is an idol that will never be satisfied. It will always want more and more and more.

So while we shouldn’t ignore the legitimate needs of women, and we should seek to build a society based upon an equality of gender, race and class, we should do it for the glory of God, not our own happiness. As Kassian concluded,

“The real paradox about female happiness is that though she might try, woman will never be able to make herself happy. Nor will men make woman happy. Nor will children, career, prominence, possessions, lifestyle…nor anything else that woman might strive after. Apart from a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ as the rock-solid foundation of joy, woman will never find what she is looking for. Without a vibrant personal relationship with Christ, she will forever ask herself Friedan’s painful silent question – “Is this all?””