The Happiness Index

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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.

Tuesday Tidbits

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I apologize for being preoccupied with other things this past week: my grandson’s visit, my husband’s birthday, the observance and celebration of Ramadan and my conversion to Islam. Just little things like that. I’m easing back in with this edition of my Tuesday Tidbits. This week I’m featuring Salon’s Broadsheet. There’s so much there, I just want to share everything. If you like breaking news and entertaining insights, you want to pay frequent visits to Broadsheet. Here is a sampling of recent articles:

“The Facebook Divorce” by Amanda Fortini.

Tweeting A Miscarriage” by Tracy Clark-Flory.

Women Hold Up Half the Sky” by Kate Harding.

Want Justice For Polanski? Let Him Go” by Mary Elizabeth Williams.

Letter From a Young Feminist” by Lynn Harris.

Oh, and don’t forget the comments. Salon readers write the best.

A New Journey

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Ellen_Keim_2I’ve meant to write about Christian Feminism, or Christianity and Feminism, but never got around to it. Now I find that I have a different focus in my life: I recently converted to Islam.

This doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped being a feminist–far from it. I can understand that assumption, though. Being a feminist when you are also religious can be a challenge no matter what the religion, but let’s face it, the stereotype is that Islam is particularly oppressive to women.

I’m not going to make this blog an apologetic for Islam; that’s my personal baggage and I don’t intend to shove it down anyone’s throat. (Much like I didn’t push my Christian beliefs.) At the same time, I can’t very well ignore my interests. I will have posts from time to time that deal with what’s happening in the Islamic world. I will undoubtedly want to air out my own struggles with what it means to be a feminist and a Muslim. But I will also continue to explore what it means to be a feminist, period, no matter how you worship, vote and live.

That’s because I believe that being a feminist is one of those qualities that lies at the core of your identity. I can no more stop being a feminist than I can stop being a woman. Not because I think that women are always being screwed over, but because I think that it is a woman’s responsibility to make herself as strong as possible. For that matter, it’s a man’s responsibility to do the same, but because men and women have different issues, I think it’s important to keep their struggles separate to some extent.

However, I will say that becoming a Muslim has opened me up more to the struggles of all people, male and female, young and old, rich and poor, sick and well, of whatever (or no) religious or political persuasion, of any nationality or ethnicity. I don’t know if it will change what I write about or how I write. But I will never stop writing; it’s my way of discovering what is important.

Concerns About Popular Contraceptives

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If you take Yaz or Yasmin, you should read this article that appeared in the New York Times on September 25, 2009.

Can You Be Religious and Feminist?

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I’ve avoided writing specifically about feminism and religion, partly because religion is such a complicated, and a touchy, subject. Not all religions are created equal. Some have millions of adherents, some only a few. Some have played central roles in historical events, some have remained obscure. And nearly all have had some impact on the way women are treated in society.

It is a common perception that feminism and religion just don’t mix, that it is impossible to be religious and a feminist. The fact that most religions follow a patriarchal pattern (probably because they spring out of patriarchal societies and are designed to perpetuate them) makes them natural adversaries for feminists.  But if you examine the major religions, you’ll see that the religions themselves are not the real culprits. It is the men who interpret the religions who twist their teachings on women into misogynistic nightmares.

This means that the religious woman must realize who her real enemies are: not the gods, but the males who attempt to shape them into their own image. I realize that this sounds like male-bashing, but in fact, it’s common sense. If women had the power to call the shots, would they have instituted some of the rules and traditions or perpetuated the attitudes that make them “second-class” citizens?

So what is a feminist to do? Does she have to give up her religious beliefs? The problem with that is, people have spiritual needs that no amount of political or philosophical posturing can erase. Although some belief systems may seem to be almost religious in their zeal, if they are not addressing the possibility of the existence of God, they are not religions. (By this definition, atheism is a religious belief and feminism isn’t.)

However, non-religious belief systems like communism or feminism can seem like religions. They become world-views through which their adherents come to understand human nature, and even, at times, God.  It is important to keep religious beliefs separate from political or sociological ones. For example, being a Christian doesn’t require that you be a capitalist any more than the reverse is true.

At the same time, if you are religious and hold non-religious views about human nature, you are going to have to reconcile them at some point. Or at least attempt to do so. It’s not intellectually or spiritually honest to say that you’re religious and a feminist without attempting to determine how the one affects the other. In most cases you will find that they’re not incompatible.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t sticky questions that need to be resolved. More often than not you’ll find the answers in a study of the religion itself. How and when were its scriptures written? What were the backgrounds of its eminent leaders? What was the historical context within which the religion was shaped? What was the psychological makeup of its key proponents?

I’m not trying to say that the scriptures themselves are erroneous or misleading. What I am trying to say is that the way the scriptures are interpreted and codified are inevitably filtered through the experiences of the men who control it. It’s important to separate the words of your God from the words of men. Dare, even, to come up with your own interpretations, not to make up your own version of your religion, but to help you to understand it better.

Men are not gods (contrary to some people’s beliefs). They should be listening to their God, not expounding their own views on how to treat half of His creation. Women have as much right to examine and interpret scripture and establish religious traditions as men do. But they also have as much responsibility to do it fairly. Arguing about God’s intentions is as fruitless as ants arguing about humans’ intentions. We need to find our place in relation to God, not His in relation to ours.

And that’s how you can be religious and feminist. By not putting your human beliefs above your belief in God, yes, but also by using what God has given you to understand them in the context of your religion.

Tuesday Tidbits

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Judy Berman writes about sex-segregated commuter trains in India at Salon’s Broadsheet.

At RH Reality Check, Eleanor Bader writes about anti-abortionists demonizing a breast cancer organization. So does Lynn Harris at Broadsheet.

Read about Scandinavia’s fight against female genital mutilation (FGM) here.

Read about Ada Lovelace on Wikipedia. She was not only the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron but is also considered to be the world’s first computer programmer based on the descriptions and programs she wrote for a machine that hadn’t yet been invented. She was born in 1815 and died at the age of 36. Yet another unsung hero.