Despite the huge and on-going advances of women by most objective indicators, feminism retains a neurotic aspect, an over-anxiety that the gains are going to be reversed.
One manifestation of this anxiety is strong reactions against even empirically true statements about gender, lest they conceal some normative agenda by the author, or suggest arguments that ‘traditional values’ conservatives might later use. I scored this kind of reaction last month. But I was being provocative and cannot complain that I got a response. But what did Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers do to deserve this spray in the Guardian, dutifully reprinted over the weekend in the Guardian of the south, aka The Age?
The prompt for the Guardian attack on Stevenson and Wolfers was the National Bureau of Economic Research publication of their research on the declining relative happiness of women, especially in the United States. I blogged on an earlier version of this paper in 2007.
The Stevenson and Wolfers paper is in standard NBER style, full of sentences like ‘the ordered probit normalizes the underlying distribution of happiness to have a standard deviation of one, and hence this shift amounts to about one-eighth of the cross-sectional standard deviation of happiness.’
It has no political agenda. It is just an honest attempt, using statistics, to try to work out why despite so many favourable objective changes American women are getting less happy, both absolutely and relative to men. Stevenson and Wolfers admit they can’t really provide a convincing explanation, but rule out several possibilities that might help conservatives, in finding that the trend is apparent for stay-at-home women as well as women in paid work, for women with children as well as without children, and for married women as well as unmarried women. The only group for whom it is not true is black women.
But Sady Doyle of the Guardian sees sinister forces at work
As Susan Faludi noted in her seminal work Backlash, one of the primary tactics of anti-feminists is the argument that the freedoms provided by feminist progress will ultimately ruin women’s lives. ….
…how infatuated the world at large seems to be with female failure!
Daly wonders why the paper focuses on white women, when white men are showing declines in happiness too. But from a social science perspective larger trends are more interesting than smaller trends, and women are a better test of the happiness research assumption that changes in objective conditions will flow through to changes in subjective feelings. If there is a political conclusion to be drawn from this paper – and its authors don’t try to make one – it is that we should be sceptical about using policy to promote happiness. To see it as anti-women requires considerable paranoia.