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It's Feminism's Fault!: Ross Douthat edition

I almost don't want to give the New York Times the pageviews it was obviously courting in publishing Ross Douthat's stunningly underthought and journalistically sloppy column "Liberated and Unhappy." But those of you who've read Beth Skwarecki's article "Mad Science: Deconstructing Bunk Reporting in 5 Easy Steps" will immediately recognize the tricks Douthat uses in his "analysis" of the supposed link between the gains of feminism and the sad, benighted women it's left in its wake.

The 2007 study on which Douthat hangs today's column is called  "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness," and was authored by two economists from The Wharton School of Business; reading it, it seems fair to say that, like many an interesting study, it makes a sweeping hypothesis — "By many objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women's declining relative happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men" — and then spends much of the following 44 pages explaining that it's not actually that simple, and exploring the many variables that may contribute to this decline. For instance, the social pressure on women of the 1960s and '70s to put on a happy face (even one that was chemically induced) is very likely a factor in the study's self-reporting; so is the probability that, as revealed in a study by another economist published around the same time as "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness," men have over the past several decades cut back on activities they don't like and, as a result, have more true leisure time; women —whose leisure time, particularly if they have families, is not their own—have less.

The upshot of the Wharton study is that while the authors start with the assertion that women today may be subjectively less happy than they reported being 35 years ago, the study itself is careful to dispense with continual reminders that correlation is, once again, not causation.

Douthat, well,  doubts that. (Sorry. It was either that or calling him "Douchehat," which I still reserve the right to do.) He doubts it so much that he prefers to just interpret the study his own way, which not only involves not linking to a PDF of the document (just the abstract, with the inconvenient facts and stuff locked behind a paywall), but apparently barely skimming even enough of the study to cherry-pick from it.

Here's Ross's take: He is very sad for us women. We can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, etc.,  but our liberation is a sham. As he puts it, "All the achievements of the feminist era may have delivered women to greater unhappiness."

(You know. The feminist era. Which happened in the '70s, where women got everything they wanted by wailing and rioting and burning their bras and henpecking all the men until they were quiche-eating pantywaists who totally have no rights at all anymore. Oh, it was a crazy time, that feminist era!)

Well. Ross Douthat cares about our unhappiness. And furthermore, he knows why we're sad. It's not because we're working more, or because those of us partnered with dudes are still doing all the housework, or even because major daily newspapers keep hiring doughy, entitled white guys to write about how unhappy all us ladies are. No, we're unhappy because we're all single mothers! And Ross Douthat is not happy about that.

He'd like to propose a solution: Let's stigmatize the single mothers, because then there will be no more single mothers.

[Feminists and conservatives] should also be able to agree that the steady advance of single motherhood threatens the interests and happiness of women. Here the public-policy options are limited; some kind of social stigma is a necessity.

Oh yeah, that makes total sense. We really haven't been doing nearly enough to stigmatize sexually active women and the single mothers that some of them become. Let's get right on that. What's that you say? Single mothers don't impregnate themselves, and lots of them didn't intend to be single mothers? Well, okay then. Douthat will concede that "serial baby-daddies and trophy-wife collectors" should also be added to the stoning pit.

In a blistering takedown, Megan at Jezebel posts the actual study, and points out the many, many convenient  omissions and obfuscations in Douthat's "analysis" — from ignoring the study's explanation that happiness is subjective ("…it should be noted that subjective well-being is both a function of the individual's personality and his or her reaction to life events. As such, correlations between life outcomes and happiness may not be causal") to highly selective linkage. (In making reference to a list of sexual offenders that "we" have refused to banish from the earth, Douthat links the phrase "prostitute-hiring politician" to former governer Eliot Spitzer, rather than, say, diaper-sporting, still-sitting Louisiana senator David Vitter.)

And not that the NYT asked me, but if they did, I'd be happy to tell them one way they might remedy women's unhappiness, since they really, really seem to care: If you insist on running version 3,094 on the Feminism Caused All Your Problems story, at least insist that folks like Douchehat (I'm sorry! It's too easy!) actually read the studies they report on.  

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Comments

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Thanks generic white guy with generic message!

We were just talking about that today in the office, how great it is that "feminism is over". Because, you know, since everything was solved and put to rest in the "feminist era" there hasn't been anything to worry about. Maybe we're pissed because feminism gave us the tools to recognize what is screwed up about everything in our society from marriage to jobs to motherhood, and because there was so much there that was screwed up, and still hasn't been "solved", we're still pissed. Douchehat and his half-assed attempt at an analysis of this study just add more fuel to the fire.

Misrepresented

It may not be the best reporting, but a few of "Douchehat's" statements seem taken out of context... After declaring that “All the achievements of the feminist era may have delivered women to greater unhappiness," he tries (in his own very special way) to determine what has made women unhappier. Although he does acknowledge a conservative viewpoint, he's not necessarily blaming that extinct feminist era. He concludes:

The feminist will see evidence of a revolution interrupted, in which rising expectations are bumping against glass ceilings, breeding entirely justified resentments. The traditionalist will see evidence of a revolution gone awry, in which women have been pressured into lifestyles that run counter to their biological imperatives, and men have been liberated to embrace a piggish irresponsibility.

There’s evidence to fit each of these narratives. But there’s also room for both.

Feminists and traditionalists should be able to agree, for instance, that the structures of American society don’t make enough allowances for the particular challenges of motherhood.

So people have different opinions, but grains of truth can exist in antithetical viewpoints and sometimes we can even see eye to eye... Justified resentments due to a glass ceiling? A society that doesn't accommodate [working] mothers? He certainly seems to acknowledge these problems.

The next quote, which starts "[Feminists and conservatives] should be able to agree..." continues with:

But a new-model stigma shouldn’t (and couldn’t) look like the old sexism. There’s no necessary reason why feminists and cultural conservatives can’t join forces... behind a social revolution that ostracizes serial baby-daddies and trophy-wife collectors as thoroughly as the “fallen women” of a more patriarchal age.

This doesn't imply that sexually active women or single mothers should be stigmatized - on the contrary, take them out of the stoning pit and shove the men in. It's our turn to do the stoning...

Charming. I would not defend Douthat's research or reporting skills, but his article does seem misrepresented.

Maybe a little harsh, but....

It's still a fairly big problem that he clearly hasn't read the study, because he does mention it to give his argument legitimacy. Really, this op-ed should start out "so I saw this study the other day called 'The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness' and, although I didn't read it, that title reminded me of all these bones I'd like to pick with the world." Now, that'd be some real transparency in journalism!
And although his projections as to how others will interpret the study seem evenhanded, they only seem likely if, like him, neither feminists or traditionals actually read the study.

I'd like to point out

I'd like to point out another major problem with the article. Since generic white guy works for a Rather Big Newspaper, guess what? Now everyone's getting in on the act! My "feminist" keyword corner of my googlenews homepage is stuffed full of headlines from stories of the "women, feminism, happiness" vein. Yay! If a liberal rag like NYT can say it, so can we!

Learn To Listen

"I almost don't want to give the New York Times the pageviews it was obviously courting in publishing Ross Douthat's stunningly underthought and journalistically sloppy column "Liberated and Unhappy." Actually, this article is the most underthought and sloppy analysis of gender issues. Let me explain why v

"and then spends much of the following 44 pages explaining that it's not actually that simple, and exploring the many variables that may contribute to this decline. For instance, the social pressure on women of the 1960s and '70s to put on a happy face (even one that was chemically induced) is very likely a factor in the study's self-reporting; so is the probability that," So you're saying that the reason that women report less happiness is because there is less pressure to put on a fake smiley face? Well, all that is that women have been unhappy for the past 50 years. The problems that plagued single mothers in the 60's and 70's is also what plagues them today.

"The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness," men have over the past several decades cut back on activities they don't like and, as a result, have more true leisure time; women —whose leisure time, particularly if they have families, is not their own—have less. " That only confirms what Ross have been saying that traditional family structure.

"Ross Douthat cares about our unhappiness. And furthermore, he knows why we're sad. It's not because we're working more, or because those of us partnered with dudes are still doing all the housework, or even because major daily newspapers keep hiring doughy, entitled white guys to write about how unhappy all us ladies are. No, we're unhappy because we're all single mothers! And Ross Douthat is not happy about that." So in other it's all Ross Douthat's fault that you're unhappy? *eyeroll*. If you're a single mother then working more would conflict with your relationship with your children. If you're partnered with dude as in married (or committed relationship) then you may not be working. Or if you are working you may be with partner who does the housework or at least shares the responsibility. You seem to think by making gross generalizations on women and their relationships that you're making a valid point when really you're not.

"He'd like to propose a solution: Let's stigmatize the single mothers, because then there will be no more single mothers. " That's a strawman. Moving on.

"Oh yeah, that makes total sense. We really haven't been doing nearly enough to stigmatize sexually active women and the single mothers that some of them become. Let's get right on that. What's that you say? Single mothers don't impregnate themselves, and lots of them didn't intend to be single mothers? Well, okay then. Douthat will concede that "serial baby-daddies and trophy-wife collectors" should also be added to the stoning pit. "

Really? That's your argument we shouldn't stigmatize single mothers because they didn't intend on being mothers? Should we not stigmatize drunk drivers especially when they kill someone just because they didn't intend to kill anybody? First, of all no one is talking about stigmatizing sexually active women and single mothers. There is difference between being sexually active and sexually irresponsible. If a woman has an unwanted pregnancy then most likely the result of being sexually irresponsible. The same is true for the man who got her pregnant as well. Here is the truth being a single mother is a tough job probably one the toughest jobs a person can have. So instead of looking at single motherhood with liberal rosy colored glasses we should instead acknowledge the REALITY of single motherhood. Not what we wish single motherhood is like. That's not stigmatizing that's being realistic about the consequences and negatives that come from single motherhood. Does it mean that single mother can't make a great parent? Of course not, but giving shallow admiration of single women is not really going to help those women or women in general. You say that single mothers don't get impregnate themselves that's true but men don't choose women to be sexually active for themselves either. If a woman is sexually active then she has just as much responsibility as a sexually active men not less.

"Megan at Jezebel posts the actual study, and points out the many, many convenient omissions and obfuscations in Douthat's "analysis" — from ignoring the study's explanation that happiness is subjective ("…it should be noted that subjective well-being is both a function of the individual's personality and his or her reaction to life events. As such, correlations between life outcomes and happiness may not be causal") to highly selective linkage. "

It's not correlation between women's happiness and life outcomes but a correlation between the happiness between men and women. If men are happier and women are less happy then it's rational the examine the reasons for the difference level of happiness.

Clearly, you ignored everything that Ross said in the article to reach a desired conclusion. Most of what Ross stated was valid and sound especially this part:
"Conservatives and liberals won’t agree on the means, but they ought to agree on the end: a nation where it’s easier to balance work and child-rearing, however you think that balance should be struck. " How can anyone in their right mind not get behind that sentiment is beyond me.