Why Are Modern Women Unhappy?

I. The Problem

The Times of London has a provocative piece entitled “Women less happy after 40 years of feminism.” It documents a somewhat surprising trend: before feminism, women consistently polled as happier than their husbands. But no longer:

In The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers of the University of Pennsylvania, begin by noting the gains.

“By many measures the progress of women over recent decades has been extraordinary: the gender wage gap has partly closed; educational attainment has risen and is now surpassing that of men; women have gained an unprecedented level of control over fertility; (and) technological change in the form of new domestic appliances has freed women from domestic drudgery,” they wrote.

It’s telling that Stevenson and Wolfers have to pay homage to the feminist dogmas, that it’s “extraordinary” “progress”that women have things like “an unprecedented level of control over fertility.”  These dogmas have been quietly shattered.  Read Professor Richard Stith’s article, Her Choice, Her Problem for a taste of what I mean.  The direct consequences of this “unprecedented level of control over fertility” have included higher rates of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and single motherhood, and crumbling support for single moms.  Precisely because women are now seen as in “control” over their “fertility,” a woman who refuses to abort an unplanned pregnancy is considered to have “chosen” to continue to be pregnant.  As the title says, her choice, her problem.

After they’re done paying homage to the dogmas, however,  Stevenson and Wolfers have something quite interesting to say:

Yet Stevenson and Wolfers have found that in America women’s happiness, far from rising, has fallen “both absolutely and relatively to that of men”. Where women in the 1970s reported themselves to be significantly happier than men, now for the first time they are reporting levels of happiness lower than men.

In Europe, people’s sense of happiness has risen slightly, but less so for women than men. In 12 European countries, including Britain, the happiness of women has fallen relative to that of men.

The authors readily admit that measuring happiness is necessarily a subjective task, but the overall trend from the data, compiled from social surveys conducted over many years, is clear and compelling.

The work builds on earlier research by Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at Warwick University, who has a particular interest in the study of happiness. He said: “What Betsey and Justin have done, which is a valuable addition, is to show that the trend is found rather widely. For most of the post-war era, happiness surveys showed women noticeably happier than men. That difference has now eroded to zero.”

The big question is: why?

Now, there’s an obvious answer to this question.  But first, let’s dispel the usual suspects.

II. The Wrong Answers

One common response is that women are unhappy now because they’re now stuck working and doing all the housework. Turns out, this isn’t really true:

When measures of women’s happiness started to dip, some sociologists reached for a simple solution known as the “second shift”. Women’s opportunities in paid employment had increased, but their domestic load had not correspondingly reduced. The belief was that they were going out to work then doing a “second shift” at home — no wonder they weren’t ecstatic.

Sorry, that won’t wash, say Stevenson and Wolfers. Surveys of how individuals spend their time show that for both men and women total work hours (combining paid or domestic) have declined since 1965.

Yes, women’s hours of “market work” have increased, but that has been offset by “large declines in their non-market work”. At the same time “men are now working fewer hours in the market and more hours in home production”.

On a purely statistical basis, women can’t argue their burden has got worse or is now drastically unequal.

Well, if not that, perhaps it’s those unequal incomes we hear so much about? Nope, turns out that’s not true, either:

Studies do show that money is an important factor in happiness: the well-off are happier than the very poor. However, that effect tails off once basic needs are met.

The article then goes on to describe a related phenomenon. A whopping 79% of women polled admitted to shopping to cheer themselves up, while the study also showed that this isn’t a really effective technique at all. The authors then raise, and dismiss, a third argument:

There is, of course, the possibility that women are simply being more direct about their happiness than they used to be. As the authors note: “Women may now feel more comfortable being honest about their true happiness and have thus deflated their previously inflated responses.”

However, the international scale of the trend seems to militate against this.
So if those things aren’t the cause, what are?  I think that there are two answers: one specific to feminism, and one much broader.

III. The Root of the Problem

Here’s my theory regarding the failure of so-called second-wave feminism to make women happy: it typically posited two gravely erroneous beliefs:

  1. For men and women to be equal, they had to be interchangable.
  2. Worth is measured by paychecks.

The first assumption is silly, and actually quite dangerous. If taken seriously, we would have to determine that the disabled are by definition “less equal,”  since they’re impaired in some regard (hence the obnoxious euphemisms like “differently-abled”).  Likewise, the youngest and oldest members of our society would have to be considered “less equal,” since they’re also more vulnerable.  As should be clear, this is little more than “might makes right” as a philosophy, because it assumes that the powerful are worth more than the vulnerable.

It’s also a good way of destroying women.  Let’s take the unoriginal example of cats and dogs.  They are, by nature, different animals.  While there are certain circumstances in which one animal is more practical, but at root, they’re equal.  People have quite rational reasons for preferring one over the other, but the two species simply fill different niches as pets.  Obviously, there are some cats which exhibit dog-like behavior, and vice versa, but measuring a cat’s worth by how well it can do a dog’s job is a good way of demeaning the value of cats.

Now consider what feminism has done.  By defining a woman’s worth (whether intentionally or not) by her wages, by her ability to compete in classically-male areas, and the like, they’ve created an unfair terrain for women.  Certain things are simply easier for men to do than women.  Taking another obvious example, Shannon Faulkner successfully sued for admission to the Citadel, the previously all-male military academy in South Carolina.  She sued on the grounds of “equal protection,” but the result is that the Citadel has has to create one set of physical test requirements for men, and another (much easier) set of physical test requirements for women.

If a modern woman’s worth is to be measured in push-ups, sit-ups, and two-mile runs, women will come up short.  The fastest men are simply much faster than the fastest women, the strongest men are much stronger than the strongest women, and so on.  This has actually caused some legal controversy, as men have started entering and winning women’s half-marathons (while event organizers were powerless to stop them, for fear of a sex discrimination lawsuit).

My point is that second-wave feminism wanted men and women to be interchangable, but envisioned that as (essentially) interchangable men.  Feminism wasn’t about defining a man’s worth by how good of a homemaker he was.  But it comes close, at points, to defining a woman’s worth by her degrees, her salary, and the like.

In saying this, I’m not suggesting that women can’t be excellent professionals – I’ve known and worked with far too many high-powered women to believe that for a moment.  But the unspoken belief that a professional is worth more than a housewife is the very sort of degrading assumption that feminism should have been fighting, instead of entrenching. Likewise, there are great stay-at-home dads and “househusbands.” But if men were fed the idea, from a young age, that they’d only be “successful” if they were homemakers (or if they were both professionals and homemakers), I think men would find themselves far more stressed and unhappy.

That brings me to my general point, which has very little to do with feminism or gender.  The notion mentioned by Stevenson and Wolfers, that money and sex and “reproductive freedom” and technology should somehow be making us happy is just shallow.  It’s the same boring consumerism that Americans are beginning to bristle under.  We’re the kings and queens of over-consumption.  We indulge our eyes, stuff our faces, and follow our hormones, but we don’t end up happy or satisfied. We end up slaves to our bodies, to our passions.

IV. The Solution to the Problem

The things we look to for happiness – the rampant lust, gluttony, drunkenness, greed, and the like – are nothing new.  But as a supposedly-religious country, maybe we should listen to St. Paul’s prescription i Colossians 3:8-17,

But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

If we honestly resolved to life like St. Paul says, rather than listening to the world (which has so miserably failed to satisfy us), we’d find ourselves happier, more joyful, more thankful, and more satisfied than anything the world has to offer.

So in short, I think that the reason modern women are unhappy is that they’ve been promised all sorts of false routes to happiness, and have found them lacking.  The unhappiness is a void which can rightly be filled only by God.  St. Edith Stein, pray for us!


  1. I think you are right about all of it. I think’s important to emphasis the false notion “You can have it all”, because in reality you can’t. You will always end up sacrificing something and then women feel guilty when they don’t meet up to that impossible standard.

    I think all too often women are taught as they grow up that being a woman is a disadvantage. Not in so many words, but by instilling mantras that “You can do just as well as any boy at anything”. It’s not a bad statement but the need to have it continually said to them implies there is something wrong with them in the first place and encourages resentment to men do surpass a woman’s ability.
    More often I think little girls and women should be reminded of their divine worth. God has specific need and role to be filled by women or he would have just created men. They should be taught that it is a blessing to be a woman. Just as it is a different blessing to be a woman. I think The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints does a pretty good job of this. I can provide links to a number of talk given by our leaders about the amazing worth of women.


  2. Along the line of Jennae’s thinking, Amish girls and boys come to mind. For a time we lived in Northeastern Ohio, surrounded by neatly maintained, non-electric, white homes. The rosy-cheeked, healthy-looking children were outside all summer long, barefooted, while working, playing, or helping their parents sell home-grown and home-made goods at roadside stands. The high point of the children’s summer was entering a carefully sewn quilt or a hand-raised lamb in the county/state fair, hoping for a prize. They purchased necessities for cash only or bartered. They refused the temptation of credit. Neighbors helped neighbors. For the most part, the women’s cooking was outstanding and creative, and the men’s manual skills were excellent. Gender identity didn’t seem to be an issue. Rather, the teens waited in chastity, praying for a virtuous spouse with whom to raise children. The girls worked diligently to fill a “Hope Chest”, and the boys worked as laborers to earn money to buy land on which they would build a house and plant a garden for their brides, thus perpetuating another generation. Yet with humility, they sought medical care at hospitals and legal advice from attorneys in the “English” world if the occasion arose.
    And on the many occasions I spoke with them, they always appeared to be friendly and kind. I’m sure they too had bad days, but they didn’t just talk the talk. They walked the walk. Catholics apologetics would be so much more effective if we would just live our faith for all to see. Except for their religious belief, I have always suspected that the 1st century faithful lived a lot like the Amish.

  3. Hi Joe. Off the subject, but I have been troubled by a “Book Talk” telecast featuring Jason Berry. I have read reviews of his books and they are mostly complimentary. He was asked if the Church has responded to his allegations. Berry’s response was that, (paraphrase)”No, and I take that as an affirmation.” Bill

  4. Render Unto Rome is Berry’s latest book. Vow of Silence is his previous.
    The latter alleges that John Paul II botched his role because he allowed the abuse scandal and “Rome” asserts that the Vatican abuses its finances in an assortment of corruptions.

  5. Bill,

    I haven’t read either book, and I’m not really sure whether you’re asking about the sex abuse scandal, financial improprieties, or something else. I would generally say it’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback, second-guessing actions taken after a scandal has broken.

    It’s also completely unrealistic to expect the pope (who has no army, and is the spiritual leader of over a billion Catholics) to personally enforce his will everywhere around the globe at all times.

    We know that the pope was against the sexual abuse of children, against covering up crimes against children, and against misusing money set aside for charities. Did those things still happen? Almost certainly. And until the Second Coming, rampant sin will continue in the Church, despite the popes’ best wishes and best efforts.

    Blaming the pope for every instance of sex abuse in the Church would be like blaming Obama for every instance of sex abuse in the United States. It’s an unfair burden no man can meet.

    I don’t know if that answers your concerns at all. Do you have anything more specific? God bless,


  6. >Nârwen, I suppose it depends on >what you meant by “high >standards” and “low standards”? >Standards regarding what? And >whom?

    Exactly. Some people look at people who are unhappy, and dismiss them as being too picky, and others look at people who are happy, and dismiss them as having standards that are too low.
    Also, what makes one happy varies so much from person to person that any real categorization is pretty much useless. Add in historical circumstances, and the whole thing looks downright silly. A woman in 14th century Europe probably counted herself happy, indeed blessed, if only one of her family members died of bubonic plague, rather than it wiping out the whole family.

  7. Nârwen,

    I think you misunderstood my reason for asking you that question. If you’re asking, “Should I expect more or less from other people in order to be happy?” then you’re off on the wrong track. If our happiness is that dependent upon external circumstances, than our heart is in the wrong place.

    St. Paul gives a prescription for happiness in Colossians 3:8-17. If we follow that, there’s no need to raise or lower our standards for other people in order to be happy.

    So that 14th century woman may well have been happy. She just (apparently) wasn’t basing her happiness off of living in a disease-free paradise, and was enjoying the blessings which she did have, like the rest of her family. So I don’t think that this means “categorization” is the problem. I think that the problem is where we look for satisfaction.

    God bless,


  8. I’d agree…. It’s just that this is using the Christian definition of ‘happy’, which is not what is being addressed in the original article. As a Catholic Christian, I agree that true happiness is defined by the Beatitudes, but worldly happiness is not. Conflating the two, as the article seems to, confuses the issue.

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