In the American Declaration of Independence some of the most historic and lasting words are “all men are created equal” and that those are endowed the unalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
But what about those two tiny, seemingly unassuming words? All men.
If all men have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it begs the question: What about a woman’s right to pursue all three, specifically happiness? Feminist writer and author Jill Filipovic explores just that in her new book The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit Of Happiness.
“What I was interested in exploring in the book is not just how do we make women equal to men in a system that men have built for themselves, but what does the female pursuit of happiness look like?” Filipovic told HuffPost. “If women were writing that founding document, what kind of system and institutions would we build around it to make that promise possible for women as well?”
“What I was interested in exploring in the book is not just how do we make women equal to men in a system that men have built for themselves, but what does the female pursuit of happiness look like?”
In the book, Filipovic explores the intersections of feminism and women’s happiness over the course of American history: Why were women, quite literally, written out of the history of happiness? How does the notion of “having it all” effect women’s happiness? Has feminism doomed us to be unhappy in our pursuit of equality? Is happiness, in fact, a feminist issue?
For that last one, Filipovic responded that happiness is “absolutely” a feminist issue. “What we’re trying to do is create a universe in which women can at least have the ability to pursue happiness,” she said, “if not the ability to actually be happy every day.”
Filipovic spoke with HuffPost to expand on that response and answer more questions about the intersections of happiness and feminism. What she learned about women, happiness and feminism while writing The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit Of Happiness might surprise you.
What prompted you to write a book about the intersections of feminism and women’s happiness?
The more that I reported on feminist issues, it became clear that a lot of what I was writing about underlined the bad experiences women have; so many of the ways in which our lives are made to be less good than they could be. It made me wonder: what does real hostility to female happiness and female pleasure look like? Everything from access to birth control and abortion rights, which seems really vested in this cultural disdain for the idea of women having sex for pleasure, to a lot of the advice that young women get about how to avoid rape, which is essentially saying don’t go out and have fun. There seems to be a real value in this hostility to women having good lives. So when I put those pieces of it together, it seemed like a ripe argument to make. And not just to say here’s the problem, but to at least attempt to make a real moral case for the good of female happiness.
In your chapter “Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions” you talk about how the concept of happiness, as written into the Declaration of Independence, wasn’t made for women. Can you talk to me a little bit about the history of happiness and how women were ― for lack of a better term ― written out of it?
When the founders were writing that all were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the only people that were actually entitled to those things at the time were land-owning white men. So it wasn’t even just men, it was a small subsection of the American male population at the time. The reality is that while men may not have been able to achieve happiness, they’ve had the ability to pursue it on the backs of free and invisible labor of women and people of color. The way that this system has been constructed, with this subgroup at the top of it, couldn’t exist unless you had the rest of us doing the legwork to make it happen.
What I was interested in exploring in the book is not just how do we make women equal to men in a system that men have built for themselves, but what does the female pursuit of happiness look like? If women were writing that founding document, what kind of system and institutions would we build around it to make that promise possible for women as well?
In your introduction you write: “Women today live in a world of unfinished feminism, where we’re told we’re equal but see our basic rights up for grabs, where we’re told to push harder at work, or recognize we can’t have it all, or marry Mr. Good Enough.” Can you expand on this notion of “unfinished feminism” and how it impacts women’s happiness?
Obviously, the feminist movement has done incredible things for American women and women around the world, and it’s had massive victories. It’s obviously valuable to show how far we’ve come in such a short period of time, especially in the grand scheme of human history. But, it’s not complete yet. We’re living at this intersection of old cultural values that are really butting up against a more feminist world.
Most women do work outside of the home, most of us work for pay, we go to college and graduate college in greater numbers than young men. But our laws and policies ― not only have they not caught up ― but we have lawmakers who have intentionally blocked them from catching up as a way to essentially make it almost impossible for women to succeed in the modern world. And a lot of this becomes very individualized: If I feel overwhelmed by trying to raise children and have a job that must be my problem and my problem to solve. Rather than making it a collective, societal problem and creating collective mechanisms to actually make a more feminist life livable.
“Women today live in a world of unfinished feminism, where we’re told we’re equal but see our basic rights up for grabs, where we’re told to push harder at work, or recognize we can’t have it all.”
You discuss the cultural definition of being a woman as always defining yourself in relation to others ― “she’s someone’s mother, sister, wife.” You coined this the “cult of female sacrifice,” which I really love. What are the consequences of this sacrifice?
I think what you see is that women are pushed into putting others before themselves, in terms of their sex lives, in terms of their relationships ― whether that’s a romantic relationship or a parental relationship or even a friendship ― I think it’s just ingrained in us. It’s almost an inability to get up in the morning and think ‘OK what is it that I want?’ It’s not just internal either, there’s this cultural expectation that women will do this. When women break that mold it can have really negative consequences. There’s been a lot of great studies that say that women don’t negotiate for more money and therefore they get paid less. But one of the reasons women don’t negotiate for more money is because when they do they’re perceived as pushy and aggressive and unlikable and they’re penalized for it. That to me is a pretty good encapsulation of a woman putting herself and her own needs and desires for fair compensation ahead of somebody else’s comfort. And we see women face financial consequences for doing that.
Another example is the advice young college women get about how to avoid sexual assault. Usually they’re told to not drink, to not go out ― basically, don’t do the normal things that everyone in your peer group is doing and that young men always do. If you don’t forgo this kind of pleasure, you may be punished for it. The punishment may be you get raped and the further cultural punishment is that everybody looks at you and says “What did she think was going to happen?” The consequences of this idea that women should always sacrifice their own pleasure or their own needs are pretty far-reaching and pervasive.
In your chapter about female pleasure and happiness you discuss sacrifice as a “central part of womanhood” that leads to a missing “road map for basic female demands.” How do you think this lack of guidance to demanding self-pleasure coupled with the “cult of female sacrifice” informs women’s happiness?
Obviously, one of the ways to be happy and to feel happy is through basic hedonistic pleasure ― stimulated in the five senses. Whether that’s eating a great meal or having a good sexual experience, all of these things are the kind of small things that add up to a life that feels good and happy and pleasurable.
Of course this does not apply to every single person, but for most people sex is one of the most pleasurable things that we do. For many women, sex is also a locus of fear and sometimes a locus of violence, and that obviously undercuts our ability to have happy and healthy sex lives. So does this idea of performative female sexuality and the idea that we’re sexual objects to be enjoyed by someone else. Women are told we’re not sexual actors to figure out what our enjoyment even looks and feels like.
You discuss how traditional “women’s work” remains undervalued and underpaid. How do you think this gap affects women’s happiness and pleasure?
One thing we know is that although money doesn’t buy happiness, economic instability does decrease people’s happiness. It’s only true that money doesn’t make you happy above a certain level. So when the work that women have traditionally done is both underpaid and undervalued the following happens: A) It makes someone economically insecure, which is a very quick route to unhappiness; and B) It means that women are less likely to derive the kind of identity and sense of purpose from their work that men long have. Certainly, for a lot of people care work can feel quite meaningful, but it becomes an issue when we send the message that that kind of work is not particularly valuable and is not valuable in part because women do it. We really undercut not only women’s paychecks but also our psychological and emotional health as it relates to our jobs.
“Women are funneled towards certain options because our choices are constrained and then we’re told that we’re the ones doing the choosing and so it’s our responsibility. That’s the path that needs to be upended.”
In your chapter “Summer Sisters: Women And The Power Of Female Friendships” you write about the effects platonic female friendship have on women’s happiness and how, often times, they’re more integral to personal growth than romantic relationships.
Female friendships have always factored into the lives of women, but especially now when women are getting married later than ever before; when we live so much more of our lives outside of the nuclear family structure. Many of us leave our homes at 17 or 18 to go off to college or to go into the workforce and the average age of marriage for women now is 27. The average woman has a decade in there where she’s living at least semi-independently and where a romantic partner is not her primary outlet into the rest of the world. Even after we marry, women are much more likely to work outside of the home now than we used to. We have far more connection and especially in those formative years when we’re becoming full human beings in our 20s ― for a lot of women that happens surrounded by other women.
And while female friendships are not new, the length of time that women spend single, living with other women and having them be our primary outlets is new. And that’s something we haven’t really caught up with policy-wise: how to recognize that often the chief person in your life is not a romantic partner.
It’s raised the bar for romantic relationships, as well. Most of my adult life I’ve lived with other women, so I know it’s perfectly possible to split doing the dishes and both take out the garbage. To be able to share space with somebody and have an equal division of labor, to love somebody and not only love them because you’re romantically attached to them, because you do have this enduring connection to both share the chores and share the emotional labor of the relationship: I think all of that leads to better romantic relationships later in life if that’s the path that you go down. It’s frankly one of the reasons you see women who marry after the age of 25 having longer-lasting, happier, more stable marriages. We learn a lot of these really valuable relationship skills from our female friends.
So, what does the female pursuit of happiness look like?
It looks like a policy landscape that opens up opportunity for women and doesn’t constrain our options and then tell us everything is about individual choice. I think by now our politics rely quite a bit on “choice” language ― it’s a choice to work or stay home, it’s a choice to have kids or not have kids, it’s a choice to eat what you want. This is all very individualistic. But because of certain policy decisions we’ve made, many parts of women’s lives don’t feel like much of a choice.
Women are funneled towards certain options because our choices are constrained and then we’re told that we’re the ones doing the choosing and so it’s our responsibility. That’s the path that needs to be upended. We need a policy landscape that makes real choices available for women. It has to be a collective, social and political effort to say that female happiness matters ― and male happiness matters, too ― and that one of the roles of government is to make people’s lives better.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.