Caveat Preemptor

What the headline declares, the story takes away

The lead headline in today's Slate? "Feminism Makes You Unhappy: Here's the Proof." It's effective packaging, I'll grant you that. But the story debunks the headline, creating a sucker punch effect--and one I'm getting pretty sick of. The Underlying message: All of this wimmin's lib stuff is the social equivalent of margarine. It seemed like progress, but turned out to be misguided--and it really gums up the pipes.

At the start, the story at least jibes with the headline:

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.

All of a sudden we can't seem to utter the f-word without name-checking Betty Friedan. Although until her recent death we couldn't seem to utter it at all, so maybe we should thank her, wherever she is, for the "news hook."

In any case, after several hundred words of caveats covering a vertiable ideological diaspora, the story debunks its own headline. First we are told that maybe it's not The Feminists (apparently all one species that can be tidily but irritatingly referred to on second reference as progressive) who have the problematic expectations, but "traditionalist" women.

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.

And then we hear that the study paid zero attention to half the participants of the marriages in question--the men.

Wilcox and Nock's study leaves husbands out of the picture. What we might wait for is a study that examines husbands' happiness--and tells us something about how they view male cultural scripts that remain comparatively stagnant. Maybe for them, too, clear (even rigid) expectations would correlate with marital happiness. Or maybe if it were an easier choice for them to spend more time with their children, or to turn down a prestigious office job because they want more freedom, everyone would be happier. In any case, the progressive lesson of the moment (or is it a traditionalist lesson?) is that it's time to focus less on "her" marriage--and to remember that sometimes the personal is just personal.

Let's sidestep the obvious questions about the usefulness of this kind of scholarship in an era where the vast majority of women have no choice but to work and ponder, for a moment, those expectations. In her landmark history of marriage, sociologist Stephanie Coontz also discovers a disconnect in terms of expectations--for both men and women. But instead of limiting the debate to the pros and cons of Friedan-style feminism, Coontz suggests that the sea change of the last 30 years has created opportunities for both genders and for straights and gays alike. Marriage won't ever be the same, it just might be better--for everyone.

The result was that people really could marry for love, completely for love, in a way they hadn't been. As late as the 1960s, two-thirds of women in college polls said they would marry a man they didn't love if he met all of their other criteria. And you could begin to expect higher things of marriage. As late as the 1970s, many women who were interviewed, working-class women, told reporters that their definition of a happy marriage was one where the husband didn't hit them. Now, in the last 20 years, of course, our expectations have grown much higher.

The result is that many marriages are happier than many couples I studied in the past would ever have dared to dream. But the very things that make marriage more intimate and more flexible have also made it more optional. And they've made people less willing to put up with a marriage that doesn't meet those aspirations.

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