Liberated but Unhappy

The evidence continues to mount that the interests of American women have not been served by the social and economic changes of the past 40 years that feminists claimed would liberate them. The latest bomb, a working paper written by professors at the Wharton School of Business for the National Bureau of Economic Research, reveals that American women no longer report, as they did in the 1970s, higher levels of happiness than men.

Charting a robust pattern over several decades that has been unnoticed by scholars, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers find that the reported decline in female happiness is not only absolute and relative to that of men, but is also “pervasive” and “ubiquitous” across demographic groups, datasets, countries, and measures of subjective well-being. Their findings prompt them to ask the provocative question, “Did men garner a disproportionate share of the benefits of the women’s movement?

Looking at the United States, the economists examine data from the General Social Survey, which included the question to respondents in almost every year from 1972 to 2006, “Would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” Women were more likely than men to report being “very happy” in the 1970s, but the differential begins to evaporate in the 1980s. In a regression that combined the answers into a single happiness index by gender, the authors found a statistically significant trend of declining female happiness through 2006. They also found similar declines in women’s happiness, relative to men, using data from the Virginia Slim’s American Women’s Opinion Polls, which have been conducted every five years since 1970, and the Monitoring the Future study, which has polled high school seniors annually since 1976.

Extensive statistical analyses, however, were not able to isolate factors that might be responsible for the downward pattern. Controlling for changes in the composition of the U.S. population since the 1970s, as well as for socioeconomic factors, had little effect on the overall decline in female subjective happiness. The authors also disaggregated the data by martial status, employment status, and fertility outcomes, finding little impact of these variables on the overall pattern. Noting the same trend in subjective unhappiness among all categories of women, the authors believe their findings cast doubt on the theory “that trends in marriage and divorce, single parenthood, or work-family balance are at the root of the happiness declines among women.”

Nonetheless, in searching for explanations of their findings, the economists cannot escape identifying “macro trends” documented by other scholars—such as decreased social cohesion, increased anxiety and neuroticism, and increased household risk—that are associated with the sexual revolution and which may have affected women differently than men, even women who follow a traditional life script. Moreover, Stevenson and Wolfers speculate that “changes brought about through the women’s movement may have decreased women’s happiness.” While not an indictment of feminism, the mere inference by academics operating under the restraints of political correctness confirms that their findings ought to be taken seriously.

(Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Papers Series No. 14969, May 2009.)