The Happiness Index

Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers released a paper in May of this year for the NBER (National Bureau of Economic Research) about “the paradox of declining female happiness. ” Soon after, op-ed columnist for the New York Times  Ross Douthat wrote a column about the paper titled “Liberated and Unhappy.” And now we have Maureen Dowd, another NYT columnist, weighing in on the same topic in “Blue is the New Black.” (I don’t understand the title, but maybe that’s just me.)

We feminists are used to being blamed for all of society’s ills. In fact, women in general ought to be used to that, especially the ones who are uppity enough to sound off about their complaints. Look at parenting: which parent comes under the most fire when it comes to the success of their children? Apparently all the dad has to do is be there to be effective. (How many times have you heard it said that single-parent–read “mother” –households would be better off if there were a man in the house?) But the mother has to do far more than just be there. And God help her, if she doesn’t fulfill all her roles, she will be blamed for the problems her children have, as well as for all the ills of society.

This could be part of the reason women are unhappy. But does it account for their greater unhappiness which has coincidentally occurred since the feminist revolution? Douthat writes:

“In the 1960s, when Betty Friedan diagnosed her fellow wives and daughters as the victims of “the problem with no name,” American women reported themselves happier, on average, than did men. Today, that gender gap has reversed. Male happiness has inched up, and female happiness has dropped. In postfeminist America, men are happier than women.”

Dowd goes a step further:

“When women stepped into male- dominated realms, they put more demands — and stress — on themselves. If they once judged themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens and dinner parties, now they judge themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens, dinner parties — and grad school, work, office deadlines and meshing a two-career marriage.”

And yet how many of today’s women would want to trade their lives for the lives their mothers lived? And is it really all the choices that are making women unhappy?

I have compiled what I call “The Happiness Index.” What it does is list several factors that can contribute to a sense of well-being (or the reverse) and asks a woman to rate where she stands on a scale from 1 to 5, or “very unhappy, “unhappy,” “neutral (neither happy or unhappy),” “happy” or “very happy.”

  1. If you are in a committed relationship, how do you feel about it?
  2. If you are not in a committed relationship, how do you feel about it?
  3. How do you feel about your marital status (single, divorced, married)? (Indicate what your status is.)
  4. How do you feel about being a parent, if you are one?
  5. If you are not a parent, how do you feel about being childless?
  6. If you have a career outside of your parenting and household duties, how do you feel about it?
  7. How do you feel about the work you do outside of the home?
  8. How do you feel about the work you do inside of the home?
  9. How do you feel about how appreciated you are (by partner, child(ren), friends, employer, co-workers)? (Answer for each category.)
  10. How do you feel about your economic status?
  11. How do you feel about where you live (the neighborhood, city, country or your actual home)?
  12. If you have a religious affiliation or a spiritual life, how happy are you with either/both?
  13. How happy are you with the part politics and government play in your life?
  14. No matter what you do, how do you feel about the amount of autonomy you have? (Do you wish you had more or less?)
  15. What is your attitude about your looks?
  16. Are you happy with how you are aging?
  17. How do you feel about your health?
  18. How do you feel about your sex life?

Now add up your scores. The higher the score, the happier you are (and the lower, the unhappier, of course). Pretty simple.

Blaming–or crediting–the feminist movement alone for your unhappiness or happiness is pointless. It’s not the degree of choice that stresses women out, it’s whether or not they have choices. It’s not what your marital status is that makes you happy or unhappy–it’s how you feel about your status, not to mention the quality of the relationships you do have. In fact, what you make of all these situations is the greatest factor of all.

And then there’s the question of the effect feminism itself has had on all of these areas. To what degree can you blame feminism for your looks, how you’re aging and and your health? Does feminism aid or hinder your parenting or relationship skills? Has feminism made your economic situation better or worse (or are there other factors that have contributed to your economic stability or instability? If you are divorced, has feminism given you more power in the negotiations? Do you think you would have gotten that promotion, salary, admission or career without feminism? Has feminism made it more or less likely that you will be stuck in a low-paying job? Would you have had enough courage to ask for sexual satisfaction or to seek out birth control if this were the ’50s?

I deplore knee-jerk reactions in either direction when it comes to the debate about what feminism has done for women–and men–in our society. What is really called for is a thoughtful consideration of all the factors that can influence happiness levels. The pursuit of happiness is a tricky thing, but important enough to be mentioned in our constitution along with life and liberty. What part does feminism play in your life satisfaction? Only you can decide.

A Survey for Women

Noble Savage tipped me off to this survey for women about feminism, marriage and motherhood. The survey is being conducted by the University of Mary Washington Mothering Study. Here is the researchers’ statement:

“We are studying the relationship between feminism and mothering. There has been a historical tension between the feminist movement and mothers. Some have accused feminists of ruining the family by encouraging women to move into the workplace, obtain legal abortions, and less commonly serve as primary caregivers. On the other hand, feminists have also advocated for affordable high quality childcare and have been very involved in women’s health issues including childbirth and breastfeeding. Some branches of feminism especially value motherhood. Little research has been conducted on whether feminists are more or less likely to desire motherhood, the ways in which feminists may be different from non-feminists in how they approach motherhood, and how people (both feminists and non-feminists) perceive feminist mothers. We hope to contribute to this literature.”

I enjoyed taking the survey because it really made me think. It isn’t long–15 to 30 minutes.

Vermont Requires Breastfeeding Accommodations

Vermont’s Commission on Women and Department of Health is launching an initiative that offers free assistance to businesses in the state who are working to comply with a new law that requires accommodations for breastfeeding mothers at work. According to the Burlington Free Press, Vermont’s initiative is part of a nationwide US Department of Health and Human Services, Maternal and Child Health Bureau initiative that aims to encourage women to breast-feed for longer after returning to work.

The law requires businesses to provide comfortable, private accommodations for women to pump milk and to allow breaks for pumping. Wendy Love, President of Vermont’s Commission on Women, told the Times Argus, “Sometimes it’s as simple as rigging a clothesline and fabric around a cubicle to create an enclosed space for women to be able to express breast milk and not be in dirty bathroom…There are very easy ways to do it.”

State labor statistics indicate that the fastest-growing sector of Vermont’s workforce is women with children under age 3. According to WCAX, about 85 percent of women in Vermont breastfeed their newborns. Vermont Commission on Women statistics show that for every dollar spent to support lactation, employers see a three dollar return on the investment reported the Burlington Free Press. The practice lowers turnover and absenteeism rates, lowers health care costs, and leads to higher morale and productivity.

Source: the Weekly Feminist News Digest of the Feminist Majority Foundation

Studies About Female Bosses

In my Sunday paper I found two news shorts about studies having to do with female bosses.

One was originally in the Minneapolis Star Tribune as follows:

“Female managers are substantially more likely to be targets of sexual harassment than women who have no supervisory responsibilities, according to a study by sociologists at the University of Minnesota. Nearly half of the female managers covered in the study reported harassment in the workplace, compared with 30 percent of other female workers.

“The study’s authors said the findings indicate that sexual harassment is about control, rather than sexual desire. ‘Male co-workers, clients and supervisors seem to be using harassment as an equalizer against women in power, ‘ said Heather McLaughlin, a university sociologist and lead investigator in the study.

“McLaughlin and colleagues Christopher Uggen of the U of M and Amy Blackstone of the University of Maine also said that workers who are perceived to be ‘non-heterosexual’ were nearly twice as likely to experience harassment than others.”

My first reaction to this story was that so many women reported sexual harassment, managers and non-managers alike. 30-50 percent! Then I found a March 26, 2009 press release from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reporting that the Star Tribune settled a sexual harassment suit on the behalf of female workers for over $300,000.  Small change perhaps when you consider the number of women involved (any woman who worked in the mail room at the Heritage Production Facility between August 2005 and the present).

This is indicative of the disconnect that exists between public recognition and private perpetuation of the problem. The Star Tribune is happy to report on a study about the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace but conveniently neglects to admit to its own failure to provide a harassment-free work environment. (Not that I really expected it to.)

The second news short had to do with financial risk-taking. A new [unnamed] study suggests that “women with higher testosterone levels seem to be more like men in taking financial risks. Long associated with competitiveness, the hormone usually occurs at higher levels in men. The study examined more than 500 male and female MBA students and found that relative testosterone levels, rather than gender, seem to affect financial risk-taking.

“It also found that married people have less of the hormone than single people do.” [From unspecified wire reports.]

I love the throwaway observations at the end of both these news shorts: Non-heterosexual-seeming females are more likely to be sexually harassed and single people have higher levels of testosterone than do married people. These both seem to relate to homosexual behaviors. Might we then conclude that single women with high-testosterone levels are going to be perceived as non-feminine, and thus non-hetereosexual? If they are also in positions of power, that’s a double whammy. They might have what it takes to be managers and risk-takers, but they’re more likely to be single and seen as masculine, either in appearance or in behavior (or both).

I don’t think it’s the masculine appearance and behavior that bothers men in power, though. At least they can pigeonhole women who are more “like men.” They have more trouble with women who “act like women” but don’t fit traditional womanly roles. This drives men in power crazy. They don’t know how to fight women like that.

Except through sexual harassment?

Rights of Lactating Women

The Ohio State Supreme Court ruled this past Thursday that the state law banning discrimination against pregnant women cannot be used to protect a woman who was taking unauthorized breaks to pump her breast milk. The ruling did not deal with the issue of whether lactating women should be protected under the same law as pregnant women.

If the mother, LaNisa Allen, had sought accommodation for her situation and the company (Totes/Isotoner) had refused to give her any, she would have had grounds to sue based on the pregnancy discrimination law, thus forcing a ruling to be made about lactating women.  The sole dissenting judge, Justice Paul Pfeifer, wrote that the court should have made such a ruling anyway instead of dealing only with Allen’s dismissal.

I agree that Allen should have sought accommodation but what if she had and Totes/Isotoner had refused? Perhaps she knew from past practice that the company would not have accommodated her, so in an effort to continue to nourish her baby and keep her job, she attempted to handle it by pumping on the sly. I’m not saying that she made the right choice. I am saying that this is a choice that she shouldn’t have had to make.

I know that if lactating women were allowed to take extra breaks to pump their milk, there would be an outcry from people who don’t think women should be given special accommodations for anything to do with pregnancy or child-rearing. As if pumping milk was restful. (They ought to try it some time.) But in this less-than-child-friendly nation, women are all too often told that they chose to have children, so why should others have to bear the consequences of their decisions?

What I would like to know and the article didn’t say was if she received a warning or other disciplinary action first or if she was just fired outright without any chance to redeem herself. I would take issue with that, but I guess there’s no law that says that employers have to go through some kind of disciplinary process before they can fire someone.  (And there is no mention of a union which could have defended her rights.) Then again, maybe Allen had other problems which contributed to her dismissal.

The bottom line is that this is an issue that will have to be dealt with in the courts at some point, probably on a state-by-state basis. Do women have the right to breastfeed or not? Or should they be required to put their babies on the bottle if they’re going to work outside of the home? Another way to put it, of course, is do babies have the right to receive the best nourishment they can get or must their health be compromised when their mothers work? And, are poor mothers who have no choice about working going to be forced to use formula while wealthier women are free to breastfeed?

Apparently no one has asked if Totes/Isotoner would have accommodated Allen if she had asked them to. My guess is not unless they had been forced to by the law.

What Will We Tell Our Daughters?

Risa Green of Mommy Track’d recently wrote “What Will We Tell Our Daughters?” in her weekly column, Tales From the Mommy Track. She is referring to the advice that we should give our daughters about “having it all,” as in “Is it even possible?” In this column, she writes about work. What do we tell our daughters about having a career and having a family? Should we encourage them to be anything they want to be, knowing that we might be setting them up for hard times when they decide to have children? Or should we counsel that they should choose careers with flexibility built into them? Or even tell them that they shouldn’t pursue any kind of high-powered career if they intend to be mothers?

Risa writes that “one of the moms [she was talking to] pointed out that we, as the first generation of mothers to fully understand and accept the idea that ‘having it all’ is an impossible goal, are in a unique position to guide our daughters into careers and lives that might, ultimately, spare them the angst that a lot of us are going through right now.”

My mother always told me that I could be anything I wanted to be, but she never addressed the issue of being a working mother. Should she have? She herself was a teacher, but she quit working when I was in grade school. She was still of the generation that thought traditionally about a woman’s role in the family (she got married in 1949). I was a little young for the feminist movement, so I was more influenced by her example than by anything those Women Libbers were saying. Obviously: I got married at the age of 20 and had four kids by the time I was 28. I didn’t work outside of the home until my youngest was four.

But my husband and I divorced when we were 29 (God, that seems so long ago–and we were so young!) and I was left without a college degree and no training of any kind. I ended up working at the post office for 16 years and being miserable. I had a dependable income and was able to support my family, but the job itself took its toll and I definitely wasn’t there for my children.

So it’s not so much that I felt that I couldn’t have it all, but that I hated my job. It was not rewarding and it was hard on my family (I worked as a distribution machine clerk on the graveyard shift for the first five years, when my kids were in grade school.) I don’t know how different it would have been if I’d had a bona fide career, instead of the menial job that I did have. I think my children learned from my negative example that you don’t want to get stuck in a job that you hate. But I wish I could have given them the positive example of a woman working at a job she loves.

Because I don’t think it’s as much an issue of whether or not you should work or how much time you should devote to your job when you have children, but of being happy with the choices you do make. If I had it to do over again, I would tell my daughters that you can have it all. It just isn’t going to be easy.