What do women want? A timeless question

Sigmund Freud's frustrated query "What do women want?" came to mind as I read Liberated and Unhappy, Ross Douthat's review of the study The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness. Economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers show the achievements of the feminist era may have delivered women to greater unhappiness than that supposedly found by Betty Friedan in the 1960s.  The unhappiness seems to cut across income, race educational attainment and social class.  Men, on the other hand, seem to be more happy.  

According to Douthat,

The paper is fascinating not only because of what it shows, but because the authors deliberately avoid floating an easy explanation for their data.

Douthat continues

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.

I am not surprised by these findings. It is a human paradox that wanting something is often far more satisfying than having it.  Solving a problem such as gender discrimination seldom makes a person happy for long because most of us find other things to be unhappy about as needs and aspirations alter.  As I reminded one colleague from the days when only a handful of women entered law school, 90 percent of all men don't make it to the top of the profession either and they don't blame discrimination.  They admit to lack talent, insufficient drive or maybe just a run of poor luck.  Unhappiness can be highly contagious.  So can jealousy.   Anyone who has watched one break up or divorce create a cascade inside a tight knot social circle knows the phenomenon.  Such feelings often flourish in richer environments where the possibilities seem endless and prosperity a birthright because we all tend to ask ourselves if others seem to have it all, them why don't I? 
 
Stevenson and Wolfers study is particularly interesting when juxtaposed with information about how men are
disproportionately suffering in the  current recession.  If the politically correct stereotypes were true, hundreds of thousands of angry blue collar men should be on the rampage. After all, such men are supposed to be prone to violence and frustration.   Instead, blue collar men seem to be making do with very little complaining so far.  Part of this may that special kind of contentment of coping with adversity, especially if one has family and friends to share the burden and offer support.  Hidden resources get tapped, old skills get dusted off and new idea bubble to the surface.  A local realtor hung a new sign over the office a couple of weeks ago. People can now get a haircut while talking about whether the market has improve enough to re-list the old cabin.  Signs for self employed skilled laborers and technicians have sprouted by many local mailboxes and on the bulletin board in local stores.  No job is too messy today for the local handyman who refused to work in my crawl space last year.  There is increasing talk of youngsters moving back with parents or senior citizens doubling up with empty nester children. It is another human paradox that people can become unusually content with themselves in the bad times even as they express unhappiness at their circumstances and with their political leadership. 

Douthat thinks that there may be room for common cause to help women in reducing a major cause of unhappiness, single motherhood.

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.

I am not sure where Douthat is coming from. He admits that any type of stigma based on sex is probably out of the question in the current social environment, but I see other problems with his idea.  For one thing, if there was a jointly fought war on pornography, then smut won.   The stigma of using minors may have increased but porn is more accessible than ever.  Every night as I scroll down my Direct TV menu titles that feed the most vile of hoary stereotypes cross the screen: horny coeds, lusty well endowed black men, insatiable Latinas, skilled and knowing Asians as well as the newer acronym for the mature woman are available for purchase in my home. Between that and the Internet those who want so called adult entertainment no longer even need leave home to obtain it.      

A bigger problem is historic misperception.  If there was ever a truly patriarchal age in the West when so called "fallen women" were ostracized while incontinent men completely escaped censure I am not certain exactly when it occurred. Sex in and out of marriage has been with us since the beginnings of civilization. In ages with loser moral standards such matters were more or less treated as a fact of life in all social levels  In the more moral ages the tomcatting male tended to be as much a figure of social ridicule and distrust as the round heeled woman.  What stigma attached to them  was seldom as tragic as the modern critics make it out be.  A historian once quipped that any movie about George Armstrong Custer will tell you more about the politics in the year it was made than it will about the actual battle of the Little Big Horn.  The same can often be said about books about Puritan New England or Victorian Britain, two common examples of allegedly sexually repressive societies.  I find it particularly amusing when I am presented with fictional "fallen women" such as Hester Prynne or the heroines of Thomas Hardy as illustrations.  The sweetly naive "fallen women" who suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous hypocrisy and misfortune were probably about as common in real life as another stock character in fiction, the harlot with the heart of gold.  

The more I ponder what Douthat wrote about trying to solve some of this problem the more I see the issue in different terms altogether,  Is the real problem that women are more unhappy than ever?  A more timeless question has to be simply what is best for the children?   

For much of our history the majority of parents considered the best interests of their children to be more important than their own romantic fulfillment. Much of the historic stigma about divorce or attempting to raise an illegitimate child on one's own revolved around what was in the best interest of the child.  Promoting the welfare of the child often involved behavior now usually considered hypocritical. Money might be settled on a bride pregnant by a man not available to her in marriage to make her more attractive to one who could be the substitute father for her baby.  The illegitimate offspring of one sibling might be passed off as the product of the marriage of another.  Sometimes it was an adoption by a childless couple who never disclosed it was not their own baby. Occasionally if the grandparents were young enough for it to be plausible, a daughter's child would be treated as their own.  Sometimes if there was no other alternative and circumstances allowed, an unwed mother might move to another locale and pass herself off as a widow.  This lie was less to save her from shame as it was to avoid the perception the child had been abandoned by its father. Losing a parent to death is a fact of life that lays no blame on the child.  Never being claimed by a father can cause a sense of worthlessness or personal rejection lasting a lifetime.  In countless cases the charade was simply that the parents had a really good marriage, that genuine love exists when in fact there had only been a passing sexual fancy or a transient emotional need, now long dead.

In the 1960s the idea took hold that it was not necessary for parents to sacrifice to maintain a stable marriage for the sake of their children.  It was said to be better if the parents were completely honest about their own needs instead of going through the motions to keep a marriage alive. The assumption was that if each parent was made happier by placing their own interests first, the happiness of the child would automatically follow.  There are several problems with this idea.  First, in the absence of obvious physical or mental abuse, children simply lack the empathy to pick up whether their parents are truly happy or not. What matters more to their development is that both parents are there.   I was well into adulthood before I ever realized how deeply unhappy my own father had been with his marriage.  Some of us were talking about our earliest memory of the greater world. For several friends who were a few years younger, it had been the Kennedy assassination. It stuck in their minds because their parents had whispered, worried, cried or clung to each other the whole weekend.   A light bulb went off. My father had done exactly what he always did when he seemed upset. He packed a suitcase and took me to visit his mother some 90 miles away.  The older I got the more I came to appreciate how unhappy my father had been and the sacrifices he made to stay with his children.  Second, a unilateral divorce tended to increase the level of hostility between the parents well beyond that which existed when they were going threw the motions of keeping the marriage alive.  This is particularly true where one party felt they'd been dumped in favor of a quickie divorce and remarriage.  While children may not pick up on a myriad of small incompatibilities, open warfare about that tramp he dumped me for is another matter altogether. 

So what happened to the age old equation that one sacrificed to ensure one's children were raised in as stable a family environment as possible?. Why did the idea that the emotional self fulfillment of the parents was of paramount importance in a marriage take root so fast?  Could it be that Social Security broke the age old calculation that one sacrificed for one's children in the expectation that they would then care for you in your old age?  The timing is certainly interesting as the so called greatest generation that gave birth to the port WWII baby boom and who began to divorce in great number in the 1960s was the first to also be spared the burden of having to supporting elderly parents.  As a firm believer that most human behavior happens for a reason, maybe hastening the demise of Social Security will turn out to be a good thing in the long run.

In conclusion, the evidence has been in for along time now that divorce is not good for children. It reduces educational attainment, increases substance abuse,  involvement in crime, and illegitimacy rates and impairs the ability to form lasting relationships.  Now we have information that the changes in family structure over the last forty years have not brought adult women greater happiness either.  Only men report being happier. Or do they?   Given what has happened to men, is it real happiness or just resignation? 

According to Christine Hoff Sommers in her recent
Men Are the Second Sex Now

They are increasingly less educated than women. They are bearing the brunt of the recession. The New York Times recently reported that "a full 82 percent of the job losses have befallen men." Reuters referred to the surging male unemployment rate as a "blood bath." Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "FastStats" show that men are less likely than women to be insured-and more likely to drink, smoke, and be overweight. They also die six years earlier than women on average.

The cynic might even say men are happier because they are just not into the politics of victimhood .  Sommers goes on to note 

Why are there no conferences, petitions, workshops, congressional hearings, or presidential councils to help men close the education gap, the health care gap, the insurance gap, the job-loss gap, and the death gap? Because, unlike women, men do not have hundreds of men's studies departments, research institutes, policy centers, and lobby groups working tirelessly to promote their challenges as political causes.

Simply put, they take life's disappointments like men.
Sigmund Freud's frustrated query "What do women want?" came to mind as I read Liberated and Unhappy, Ross Douthat's review of the study The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness. Economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers show the achievements of the feminist era may have delivered women to greater unhappiness than that supposedly found by Betty Friedan in the 1960s.  The unhappiness seems to cut across income, race educational attainment and social class.  Men, on the other hand, seem to be more happy.  

According to Douthat,

The paper is fascinating not only because of what it shows, but because the authors deliberately avoid floating an easy explanation for their data.

Douthat continues

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.

I am not surprised by these findings. It is a human paradox that wanting something is often far more satisfying than having it.  Solving a problem such as gender discrimination seldom makes a person happy for long because most of us find other things to be unhappy about as needs and aspirations alter.  As I reminded one colleague from the days when only a handful of women entered law school, 90 percent of all men don't make it to the top of the profession either and they don't blame discrimination.  They admit to lack talent, insufficient drive or maybe just a run of poor luck.  Unhappiness can be highly contagious.  So can jealousy.   Anyone who has watched one break up or divorce create a cascade inside a tight knot social circle knows the phenomenon.  Such feelings often flourish in richer environments where the possibilities seem endless and prosperity a birthright because we all tend to ask ourselves if others seem to have it all, them why don't I? 
 
Stevenson and Wolfers study is particularly interesting when juxtaposed with information about how men are
disproportionately suffering in the  current recession.  If the politically correct stereotypes were true, hundreds of thousands of angry blue collar men should be on the rampage. After all, such men are supposed to be prone to violence and frustration.   Instead, blue collar men seem to be making do with very little complaining so far.  Part of this may that special kind of contentment of coping with adversity, especially if one has family and friends to share the burden and offer support.  Hidden resources get tapped, old skills get dusted off and new idea bubble to the surface.  A local realtor hung a new sign over the office a couple of weeks ago. People can now get a haircut while talking about whether the market has improve enough to re-list the old cabin.  Signs for self employed skilled laborers and technicians have sprouted by many local mailboxes and on the bulletin board in local stores.  No job is too messy today for the local handyman who refused to work in my crawl space last year.  There is increasing talk of youngsters moving back with parents or senior citizens doubling up with empty nester children. It is another human paradox that people can become unusually content with themselves in the bad times even as they express unhappiness at their circumstances and with their political leadership. 

Douthat thinks that there may be room for common cause to help women in reducing a major cause of unhappiness, single motherhood.

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.

I am not sure where Douthat is coming from. He admits that any type of stigma based on sex is probably out of the question in the current social environment, but I see other problems with his idea.  For one thing, if there was a jointly fought war on pornography, then smut won.   The stigma of using minors may have increased but porn is more accessible than ever.  Every night as I scroll down my Direct TV menu titles that feed the most vile of hoary stereotypes cross the screen: horny coeds, lusty well endowed black men, insatiable Latinas, skilled and knowing Asians as well as the newer acronym for the mature woman are available for purchase in my home. Between that and the Internet those who want so called adult entertainment no longer even need leave home to obtain it.      

A bigger problem is historic misperception.  If there was ever a truly patriarchal age in the West when so called "fallen women" were ostracized while incontinent men completely escaped censure I am not certain exactly when it occurred. Sex in and out of marriage has been with us since the beginnings of civilization. In ages with loser moral standards such matters were more or less treated as a fact of life in all social levels  In the more moral ages the tomcatting male tended to be as much a figure of social ridicule and distrust as the round heeled woman.  What stigma attached to them  was seldom as tragic as the modern critics make it out be.  A historian once quipped that any movie about George Armstrong Custer will tell you more about the politics in the year it was made than it will about the actual battle of the Little Big Horn.  The same can often be said about books about Puritan New England or Victorian Britain, two common examples of allegedly sexually repressive societies.  I find it particularly amusing when I am presented with fictional "fallen women" such as Hester Prynne or the heroines of Thomas Hardy as illustrations.  The sweetly naive "fallen women" who suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous hypocrisy and misfortune were probably about as common in real life as another stock character in fiction, the harlot with the heart of gold.  

The more I ponder what Douthat wrote about trying to solve some of this problem the more I see the issue in different terms altogether,  Is the real problem that women are more unhappy than ever?  A more timeless question has to be simply what is best for the children?   

For much of our history the majority of parents considered the best interests of their children to be more important than their own romantic fulfillment. Much of the historic stigma about divorce or attempting to raise an illegitimate child on one's own revolved around what was in the best interest of the child.  Promoting the welfare of the child often involved behavior now usually considered hypocritical. Money might be settled on a bride pregnant by a man not available to her in marriage to make her more attractive to one who could be the substitute father for her baby.  The illegitimate offspring of one sibling might be passed off as the product of the marriage of another.  Sometimes it was an adoption by a childless couple who never disclosed it was not their own baby. Occasionally if the grandparents were young enough for it to be plausible, a daughter's child would be treated as their own.  Sometimes if there was no other alternative and circumstances allowed, an unwed mother might move to another locale and pass herself off as a widow.  This lie was less to save her from shame as it was to avoid the perception the child had been abandoned by its father. Losing a parent to death is a fact of life that lays no blame on the child.  Never being claimed by a father can cause a sense of worthlessness or personal rejection lasting a lifetime.  In countless cases the charade was simply that the parents had a really good marriage, that genuine love exists when in fact there had only been a passing sexual fancy or a transient emotional need, now long dead.

In the 1960s the idea took hold that it was not necessary for parents to sacrifice to maintain a stable marriage for the sake of their children.  It was said to be better if the parents were completely honest about their own needs instead of going through the motions to keep a marriage alive. The assumption was that if each parent was made happier by placing their own interests first, the happiness of the child would automatically follow.  There are several problems with this idea.  First, in the absence of obvious physical or mental abuse, children simply lack the empathy to pick up whether their parents are truly happy or not. What matters more to their development is that both parents are there.   I was well into adulthood before I ever realized how deeply unhappy my own father had been with his marriage.  Some of us were talking about our earliest memory of the greater world. For several friends who were a few years younger, it had been the Kennedy assassination. It stuck in their minds because their parents had whispered, worried, cried or clung to each other the whole weekend.   A light bulb went off. My father had done exactly what he always did when he seemed upset. He packed a suitcase and took me to visit his mother some 90 miles away.  The older I got the more I came to appreciate how unhappy my father had been and the sacrifices he made to stay with his children.  Second, a unilateral divorce tended to increase the level of hostility between the parents well beyond that which existed when they were going threw the motions of keeping the marriage alive.  This is particularly true where one party felt they'd been dumped in favor of a quickie divorce and remarriage.  While children may not pick up on a myriad of small incompatibilities, open warfare about that tramp he dumped me for is another matter altogether. 

So what happened to the age old equation that one sacrificed to ensure one's children were raised in as stable a family environment as possible?. Why did the idea that the emotional self fulfillment of the parents was of paramount importance in a marriage take root so fast?  Could it be that Social Security broke the age old calculation that one sacrificed for one's children in the expectation that they would then care for you in your old age?  The timing is certainly interesting as the so called greatest generation that gave birth to the port WWII baby boom and who began to divorce in great number in the 1960s was the first to also be spared the burden of having to supporting elderly parents.  As a firm believer that most human behavior happens for a reason, maybe hastening the demise of Social Security will turn out to be a good thing in the long run.

In conclusion, the evidence has been in for along time now that divorce is not good for children. It reduces educational attainment, increases substance abuse,  involvement in crime, and illegitimacy rates and impairs the ability to form lasting relationships.  Now we have information that the changes in family structure over the last forty years have not brought adult women greater happiness either.  Only men report being happier. Or do they?   Given what has happened to men, is it real happiness or just resignation? 

According to Christine Hoff Sommers in her recent
Men Are the Second Sex Now

They are increasingly less educated than women. They are bearing the brunt of the recession. The New York Times recently reported that "a full 82 percent of the job losses have befallen men." Reuters referred to the surging male unemployment rate as a "blood bath." Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "FastStats" show that men are less likely than women to be insured-and more likely to drink, smoke, and be overweight. They also die six years earlier than women on average.

The cynic might even say men are happier because they are just not into the politics of victimhood .  Sommers goes on to note 

Why are there no conferences, petitions, workshops, congressional hearings, or presidential councils to help men close the education gap, the health care gap, the insurance gap, the job-loss gap, and the death gap? Because, unlike women, men do not have hundreds of men's studies departments, research institutes, policy centers, and lobby groups working tirelessly to promote their challenges as political causes.

Simply put, they take life's disappointments like men.