Commentators have variously chimed in over the years, and from a variety of different ideological persuasions, regarding the question of whether the Feminist movement has done women and society at large more harm than good. Recently, the argument has been couched in terms of whether women’s collective happiness has suffered with increased equality, and as a result, whether efforts towards gender parity are to blame. Some columnists have returned to the same old arguments against women’s rights that have been used for centuries and others have placed the yoke upon basic human selfishness, greed, and societal narcissism. I myself fall into the latter category.
To begin my remarks, I don’t honestly believe for a second that Feminism has made women more unhappy, or that somehow the old ways were superior, or even that women are innately less able to survive in a draining world of leap-frog and sharp elbows. The survey data cited which indicates that basic life satisfaction has declined over time must be qualified first. It must be noted that so must of the conclusions drawn are made as a kind of blanket accusation upon everyone, when they really only apply to a relatively limited slice of the population—professionals, middle class and above, usually white, highly educated, big city residents. Yet, since regrettably so much dialogue in mainstream woman-centric media is dictated by the privileged, if not in all mainstream media, the accuracy of the results are taken as gospel and never thought to be extended to anyone beyond the immediate audience. Who knows if this same attitude pertains to working class women, for example.
If one is seeking blame, of course, it can be safely assigned to consumerism, which states that one is what one buys, or rather what one wishes to buy. If one is seeking blame, one can place it upon the shoulders of a kind of toxic materialism whereby some arbitrary standard of living is the ultimate goal. In that vein, I recall the story of a close relative of mine, who was raised in a family where love was purely conditional, and was only granted at all when she jumped one hurdle after another—first rising up the ladder, then making more money, then accumulating another in a series of never ending status symbols. The expectation turned into a sibling rivalry between herself and her brother that led to a most unfortunate competition between them, whereby those who wished to have the affections and blessings of Mom and Dad knew that it only arrived in the form of dollar signs, new houses, new cars, and a thousand others ways in which those who have money flaunt it. Her case may be extreme, but I think even muted forms of this disease are prevalent among many.
In the column I cited above, Madeleine Bunting writes,
The problem, Twenge believes, derives in part from a generation of indulgent parents who have told their children how special they are. An individualistic culture has, in turn, reinforced a preoccupation with the self and its promotion. The narcissist is often rewarded – they tend to be outgoing, good at selling themselves, and very competitive: they are the types who will end up as Sir Alan’s apprentice. But their success is shortlived; the downside is that they have a tendency to risky behaviour, addictive disorders, have difficulties sustaining intimate relationships, and are more prone to aggressive behaviour when rejected.
The narcissism of young women could just be a phase they will grow out of, admits Twenge, but she is concerned that the evidence of narcissism is present throughout highly consumerist, individualistic societies – and women suffer disproportionately from the depression and anxiety linked to it.
In my own life among young professionals I notice similar findings to that of the survey, but not to such an alarming degree. The disorders of those who live lives of quiet desperation rarely lend themselves to screaming headlines and panicked rhetoric. Rather, I see a group of overworked, highly driven, heavily motivated, but overburdened toilers desperately seeking to make a name for themselves. At this stage in their careers, those in their late twenties pushing thirty like me are on the path towards greater visibility, an increase in salary, and the ability to achieve fullest satisfaction based on the fact that so much of their own self-worth is heavily tied up in achievement. If they don’t already have a Master’s Degree at this point, they are surely already enrolled and taking courses, or are at minimum making plans to be enrolled somewhere very soon. Self-worth is a positive thing at its face, but I have always felt it needs to come from within, not from the accumulation of merit badges, skill sets, and embossed pieces of paper.
Yet, as they put in unnecessarily long hours and place their careers first, many end up also denying their basic needs as humans. To be sure, I am not arguing that women who put their careers first ought to return to the days of subservient housewifery. I think that as we have had more equality in the workplace, to say nothing of the rest of society as a whole, the results have been overwhelmingly positive for all. What I am saying, though, is that letting one’s work consume one’s life is an excellent way to reach burn out and to sacrifice one’s health in the process. A recent article in Politico detailed the sad demise of a Congressional staffer who put in 100 hour workweeks and eventually perished from the stress of her occupation. For about two days the topic was incorporated into some modest debate, then everyone moved on to something else entirely.
I firmly believe we are meant to be social with each other, we are meant to date and be in close relationships, and we are meant to find a balance between our obligations and our free time. I myself have engaged in conversation with many people my own age who haven’t just pushed back the date at which they intend to be married, assuming that they even want to be married at all, they’ve also filled their schedules so full that they simply don’t have time to devote to look for a relationship or to socialize with friends. Delayed gratification is fine, of course, within reason. If this were some temporary state of being, much like buckling down at college and studying for finals, it could be excused, but far too many people live their lives as though they are preparing to take their final examinations. I don’t think the Grim Reaper makes one take the Death Preparation Test (DPT) upon condition of being accepted into the world of the deceased.
We are a highly individualistic people, yes, but I have long believed that this degree of individualism works against us time in and time out. More recently, the reason we can’t seem to agree upon the most basic of reforms is that too many of us are looking out for number one. Over the course of my life I have personally observed a thousand inspiring speakers, each saying some variation of the same thing, namely that we have got to think more collectively rather than individually if we ever wish to make the next leap forward. They have some fine old company in this endeavor, beginning arbitrarily with Jesus, and moving as far forward or backwards in time as one wishes. And yet, the problem persists.
What is the solution? Well, solutions are easy enough, provided people adopt them. Learning that we are finite beings with a finite amount of energy is a beginning. Closely linked with it is the realization that work ought to be provide us a sense of satisfaction of having achieved a job, a paycheck, of course, and a resulting sense of pride in having done a job well rather than a ceaseless Sisyphean struggle. Acknowledging that it really doesn’t matter how many committees you happen to be a member of is another. Recognizing that one shouldn’t settle for good enough while also taking into account that learning how to say no is an essential life skill is still another. After a time, some people really think that they are their resumes or the letters either before or after their name, and you can be sure they’ll want you to know it, too. But namely, we’ve got to understand that it’s not about us: it’s not our careers, or our paychecks, or our starter homes, or the Holy Grail of the corner office someday, or any of these superficial concerns.
For too many of us, for every step up we take, with it comes the compulsion to accumulate accessories. Our possessions often weigh us down; they do not enrich us. Rethinking the idea of achievement and success is where we’re really lacking and until we even consider dipping our toe into the way things could be, expect more unhappiness for everyone concerned. We might not be equal, but we will be equally miserable until we choose to change.