Every year since 1972, the General Social Survey has asked a representative sample of American adults how happy they are. In 1972, women reported being a bit happier than men. Each year since, despite the achievements of feminism, women’s reported happiness has declined, both in absolute terms and when compared with men’s. Around 1990, the sexes passed each other, and since then, women have reported being less happy than men, and less happy than their mothers and grandmothers were at the same stage of life.
A 2011 study found that women were two and a half times as likely as men to be taking an antidepressant. Recent data on suicide rates between 2000 and 2016 show a 21 percent increase for men, but a 50 percent increase for women. Among middle-aged women, the increase was 60 percent. This closes a gender gap, but not in a way anyone would cheer.
The #MeToo movement is another signal flare of distress. Women are fed up with the post-sexual-revolution world feminists did so much to enable. Jessica Valenti of Feministing.com, responding to the Aziz Ansari “bad date” story, wrote: “A lot of men will read that post about Aziz Ansari and see an everyday, reasonable sexual interaction. But part of what women are saying right now is that what the culture considers ‘normal’ sexual encounters are not working for us . . .”
#MeToo is perceived as a feminist crusade, but the truth is more complicated. Feminists were early adopters of the sexual revolution, perceiving it as a key tenet of their liberation agenda. By rejecting modesty, courtship, and chivalry, feminists of the 1960s and 1970s rejected the safe harbor of marriage and family and invited the social chaos that has left so many women struggling to raise children by themselves and feeling exhausted, insecure, and cynical. It has also left many men aimless, addicted, angry, and alone.
Feminism need not have rejected marriage and family stability to achieve greater market opportunities for women. In fact, the trend of women entering the paid work force predated Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), and arguably owed more to the shift toward an information economy than to the Sisterhood. Between 1940 and 1956, the number of women in the work force doubled from 15 to 30 percent, and rose steadily thereafter. As sociologist Daniel Bell noted in 1956, women were to be found in nearly every field, from railroad trainmen, to baggage handlers, to glaziers, to auctioneers.
It’s a great blessing that women’s talents are valued in the workplace more than in the past. To the degree that feminism gave women a boost of self-confidence, it can take a bow. But women also want and need the security of marriage and the profound fulfillment of motherhood. In 2015, feminist Amanda Marcotte objected to “the Republican worldview” as “one where even basic things like love, connection, and other basic human needs are being reclassified as privileges that should only be available to the wealthy.” Marcotte is right that love and connection are key to human flourishing, but she fails to account for feminism’s role in putting those things further out of reach. Betty Friedan was one of the only second-wave feminist leaders who had children. Late in life, she largely recanted her anti-family views, acknowledging, as Marcotte and others do not, that feminism had turned its back on the “life-serving core of feminine identity.”
The feminist narrative places an excessive focus on the burdens rather than the pleasures of femininity. The wage gap is real, but it arises from motherhood, not sexism. Data from the National Bureau of Economic Research reveal that young men and women just starting out in their careers are paid equally. The wage gap appears only when women begin to cut back to care for children. Nearly all mainstream treatment of these matters incorporates the assumption that if women are earning less over their lifetimes, they are the losers. As Sari Kerr of Wellesley College put it, “On every possible front, women are getting the short end of the stick.”
Viewing the world this way diminishes the choices that women freely make. We are not just atomized individuals. You cannot separate women’s success from that of the men and children to whom they’re attached. If a mother cuts back at work and is then able to help a son struggling with a learning disability or a daughter with a social crisis at school, isn’t the whole family happier and healthier? Isn’t the whole society?
Besides, as gratifying as work can be, most women have jobs, not careers. The number of Americans attending college is growing, but even in 2017, the portion of women with the college degrees necessary for the most interesting careers was still only 34.6 (33.7 percent for men). Is it really progress to encourage high-school graduates to turn their babies over to other high-school graduates so that the mothers can man a checkout counter?
More affluent (and that nearly always means married) women who have a choice prioritize raising children. Throughout the Western world, even in countries like Scandinavia and Israel that offer or have offered generous financial inducements to couples to split childcare 50/50, women continue to shoulder the lion’s share of caregiving. A 2013 CBS/New York Times survey asked, “If money were no object, and you were free to do whatever you wanted, would you stay at home, work part time, or work full time?” Among women with children under eighteen years old, only 27 percent said “work full time.” Forty-nine percent preferred part time work, as I did when my children were young, and 22 percent preferred no work outside the home. A Pew survey found that among married mothers, 76 percent preferred part-time jobs or no paid work. Checking in on 1993 Northwestern graduates 20 years later, The Atlantic found that 25 percent of women were staying home to raise children. “I went to a job interview after my first daughter was born and cried the whole way home,” ran a typical account.
Sadly, among women high-school dropouts, 57 percent of births are non-marital. That compares with only 9 percent among college graduates. This is the key to growing inequality. Single mothers cannot afford the luxury of part-time work. They live one illness, one crime, one missed rent payment from disaster. America holds the dubious distinction of leading the world in chaotic adult relationships. Forty percent of American children will see their parents’ arrangement — whether marriage or living together — dissolve by the time they reach their 15th birthday. Forty-seven percent will see a new partner enter their home within three years of their parents’ separation, which is associated with even poorer outcomes for children than living with a single parent. Among cohabiting couples, the breakup rate is 55 percent after five years, the highest among OECD countries.
Perhaps due to feminism, or unquestioning attachment to the sexual revolution, or the deep-seated American reverence for freedom, we are reluctant to confront the price of neglecting duty and commitment. Consider what works: Among married African Americans, the poverty rate is 8 percent, or half the national rate. Among black single mothers, 46 percent live in poverty. The ratios are similar for other ethnic groups.
Too many in our society encourage us to believe that our identity and validation must come almost entirely from our profession. My own work, at its best, is stimulating and gratifying, but my husband and three sons are the treasures of my heart. Given a little luck, most of us can expect to live long lives. There is time enough for raising a family and pursuing a career, but being an adult means acknowledging that there are always tradeoffs. The world will never shower the kind of adulation upon good mothers and fathers that it reserves for successful entrepreneurs, athletes, or reality-TV stars. But young people making choices about their futures should know that getting their personal lives right is far more important than career choices.
Serving others is a privilege that calls forth our best selves. When I was caring for my children, even at moments of highest stress, I felt a deep sense that this was where I belonged. For me, and I believe for others, giving, not having, is the key to happiness and peace.
Mona Charen’s new book, Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love, and Common Sense, is out now.
— Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.