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The feminist mystique circa 2016

Written By | Oct 4, 2016

PHILADELPHIA, October 4, 2016 — In 1963, Betty Friedan wrote “The Feminine Mystique”. That book would be considered by some as the catalyst for the second wave of US feminism.

In the book, Friedan discusses the lives of select housewives in an attempt to support the claim women are not fulfilled by their roles as homemakers and mothers. She tried to show that their happiness was a false notion, a mystique created by the male run media and advertising industries of that time.

Today, the US Department of Labor reports that 70 percent of women with children under the age of 18 are in the labor force. More than two-thirds of women with family responsibilities divide their time across home and work.

Feminists might assume American women report increased happiness as a group. They do not.

In 2009, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School published a paper, “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness”.

Rather than conducting subjective interviews with a few housewives as Friedan did, they applied statistical methods to data gathered over the previous 35 years. They found that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men’s.

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This is true not just for mothers and wives, but across all demographic groups in all industrialized countries. Women in the 1970s reported higher subjective well-being than men. The study shows the emergence of a troubling, new 21st century gender gap, one where men are actually happier than women.

The “feminine mystique” may be better termed a “feminist mystique.” Although research from industrialized countries shows that women are becoming more and more unhappy, no one has clearly explained the specific reasons for this. Perhaps there is a fear that the answers will be politically incorrect.

Until we have an answer, we can discuss surrounding points revealed in other gender-based studies.

To Thine Own Self Be True

Claiming that men and women are the same will not change the fact that in many ways they are not. It will not make us any happier or more successful. It encourages us to ignore our strengths and try to compete with others on tasks for which they may be more suited.

Dawn Maslar studies evolutionary biology and plans to release a book on the science of love called, “Men Chase Women Choose: The Neuroscience of Meeting, Dating, Losing Your Mind and Finding True Love.” She says:

“One of the main evolutionary and behavioral theories with regards to family structures is that we have evolved our male and female characteristics to help survive and reproduce efficiently in pairs.In other words, to be effective and efficient we evolved a division of labor. Biologists see this division of labor with many species, not just humans. When a female has babies, males will hunt and provide food. Because of this, males in general and men specifically have evolved for this task, while women have evolved for child rearing and gathering.”

She lists among our differences the use of different parts of our brain to complete problem solving tasks like finding our way out of a maze. Men rely on a sort of internal GPS that evolved from long hunting trips, while women have to think about where they are going, slowing them down.

On the other hand, women may have better memory skills. The effects of estrogen on a woman’s hippocampus help her to remember details better. This may be a result of the fact that while he was out hunting and trying to get back home in a hurry, she stayed near the home gathering berries and it was very important for her to remember which ones were not poisonous.

Dr. Lyle Wiemerslage, a neuroscientist who studies the influence of genetics on behavior, confirms that although in terms of hardware, male and female brains are nearly the same, there are differences created by the effects of hormones. “Estrogen and progesterone generally have a feminizing effect on the brain, while testosterone has a masculinizing effect. This means certain brain structures are going to work differently between the two sexes or that certain connections between structures may be strengthened or weakened.”

“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”

As offensive as Gloria Steinem’s comment is, that’s not the problem with it. It’s simply untrue. Maslar adds to the discussion:

“The basis of evolution is that when two species compete, one will need to adapt, migrate or perish. In other words, two species cannot occupy the same niche. The basic tenet of evolution is division of function. Overlap of function tends to cause the need for adaptation in one or the other. What holds true on the bigger picture, holds true on the smaller level. Therefore, men and women are built and have evolved for different functions. Now that doesn’t mean they can’t do similar jobs, but in ideal efficiency, when in partnership each would do what they are built for and in many cases that would reflect traditional roles evolved from our hunter/gatherer ancestors.”

The idea that competition between men and women, serves as a basis for relationship strife, divorce etc. has been reinforced in other types of research as well. Dr. Nicole Prause, founder of Liberos, a sexual biotechnology company, says research points out that,

“Couples are less likely to match in the first place when the woman makes more than the man, and, if they do, the couple is less satisfied with their relationship. As women continue to earn more, income differences appear likely to affect happiness.”

How much of this unhappiness amongst couples who participate in reversed gender role situations is due to nature or nurture? The answer is we don’t know and once again we need  more research, especially in-depth exploration of the participants in the studies which reveal these trends.


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Big Girls Don’t Cry

There has been lots of modern discussion and argument in regards to the topic of gendered behavior in the workplace. What is acceptable and what is not, as well as issues like is it sexist to cry shame a woman at work? Is the workplace just generally more stressful for women than men and could this lead to reports of greater unhappiness as a majority of them now participate in it?

Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Seda Gragossian, PhD of the Talk Therapy Center tells us:

The workplace could be more stressful for women in general. Women are more likely to want to process feelings and interactions with coworkers.Men tend to move on more quickly and not take things to heart as much. Men might argue and even fight with each other and turn around and go to lunch right after. Women, on the other hand, may need sort their thoughts and feelings before they are able to move on. This can be partly attributed to a difference between male and female brains.

Maslar points to something similar, citing hormonal differences between men and women which may lead to them being naturally happier in different types of work environments. She says:

“There is a balance between stress and oxytocin levels. Cortisol (released under stress) and oxytocin (one of our happy chemicals) are inversely proportionate. When cortisol is high, oxytocin is low and visa versa. High stress which elicits high cortisol levels cause women to seek out social support, which then helps them to produce more oxytocin. Unfortunately, the average workplace doesn’t foster this type of activity. Co-workers are often segregated and in some cases placed in competition against one another.”

She further explains that this win-lose atmosphere created in many work environments is not conducive to a woman’s wellbeing or happiness, but may be great for a man. Unlike a woman, a man’s well being and happiness is often a reflection of testosterone levels. When a man gets a win, his team wins, he leads a new contract, or a woman shows an interest in him, his testosterone levels spike, making him feel good.

The argument can be made that perhaps workplaces just need to be restructured to account for these biological differences. However, within certain very high stakes work environments, such as those that exist at certain financial operations or law firms, is it really efficient to take time out all day to process feelings?

Questions like this will have to continue to be posed as women gauge the value of their personal well-being along side of some types of professional success.

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What I Really Don’t Like Is Oversimplification

The above quote from Noble Prize winning economist, Thomas J. Sargeant can easily be applied to Friedan’s ideas correlating women’s happiness to their roles in and outside of the home. As Dr. Prause also tells us, “Scientists have checked whether gender rights alone might be related to women’s reported level of happiness, but they are not.”

This means that liberation from traditional roles does not guarantee happiness anywhere in the world. In fact, the reverse may sometimes be the case as other research has revealed that the differences in work satisfaction between stay-at-home and employed mothers have become statistically non-significant over the years during which more and more mothers entered the workforce.

There is also research that reports conservative women to be consistently more happy than liberal women, this is despite their tendency to have more traditional roles in their relationships.

It is time to expand the conversation beyond any sort of mystique at all. We need to produce very honest and scientific research across a variety of factors impacting female wellbeing–biological, psychological and social. This also means approaching ideas and topics that those operating within a traditional feminist paradigm may not like or even find offensive.

However, the risks of not speaking up for fear of offending modern feminists include another 40 years of declining happiness.



Communities Staff