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What Do Women Want? Again...

It's only been about 50 years since women could control our fertility and begin to forge an identity for ourselves in culture that goes beyond our biological role.
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2009-06-12-what_women_want.jpgSorry about using that tired question "what do women want?" to start off this post. Freud asked it--likening women's consicousness to a dark continent both unexplored and presumably unknowable--and every exasperated male writer and far too many marketers have used it since. But the question is popping up again. In a recent New York Times op-ed column entitled "Liberated and Unhappy," Ross Douthat reports on an analysis by economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers that indicates that across race, marriage status, economic bracket, and even country, women's subjective experience of being happy has declined both absolutely and in relation to men. Interestingly, in 1970 -- before the women's movement so dramatically opened so many women's life options--women were generally more happy than men. So, in the forty years since women in the West won their freedom to choose the lives that they want, they have become less happy. Fascinating, isn't it?

The authors of the report, which is entitled "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness," don't have an answer to the obvious question: why? and why now? Of course, conservatives will undoubtedly argue that this proves that women were better off in their traditional at-home roles home before they were liberated into unhappiness, and progressives will counterargue that women's dreams of liberation have been thwarted by institutions and customs that have not changed enough. Douthat doesn't answer the question in his column either. He only alludes to a connection between women's unhappiness and the rise in single motherhood, and suggests that we could use "a new-model stigma [against sexual irresponsibility that] shouldn't (and couldn't) look like the old sexism." As he says,

There's no necessary reason why feminists and cultural conservatives can't join forces -- in the same way that they made common cause during the pornography wars of the 1980s -- behind a social revolution that ostracizes serial baby-daddies and trophy-wife collectors as thoroughly as the "fallen women" of a more patriarchal age.

Douthat's reasoning is opaque, but he seems to be suggesting that women's unhappiness is natural in a world where there is no obligation for men to stay with the women who bear them children.

I'd like to offer an interpretation that might include all of these perspectives. I've been thinking a great deal lately about the bizarre twists our supposed sexual freedom has brought--such as the beautiful young over the internet to pay for school. 2009-06-12-what_women_want_2.jpg
(The bidding apparently reached $3.8 million--although it doesn't seem that the "transaction" happened.) This entrepreneurial virgin seems to be saying, hey, losing my virginity is supposed to be a moment that I will value forever, but it seems like what I am most valued for is my virgin body, so why not sell it -- I'll surely remember that! She sees herself as a smart actor in a materialistic culture that trades human values for cash value. She's not wrong. But certainly Douthart's and this young woman's observations don't create a very happy picture.

We women are at a strange point. Since the first hominids struggled upright, women's role has been to bear and raise the next generation. Females have been charged with the survival of the species -- our cultures have elaborated on that role and protected women's capacity to bear children (and often prohibited anyone but a woman's sanctioned mate from bearing children with her). How many thousands of years has a woman's reproductive role been the source of her value and identity?

We no longer have this unique role to play in culture. Bearing children has become optional. Being a mate and mother, which has been the source of our dignity and standing in society since tribal days, is no longer an imperative. We are freed of the necessity to reproduce, liberated from our biological role, but the choices that we have won have left us unmoored. Who are we or who should we be now?

I'm obviously not the first person to note this -- although most voices expressing such a view come from the right, urging us back to the safety and familiarity of hearth and home. I'm providing this context not to suggest that this is our God-given role, but rather to show how conditioned we are to see this as who we are and should be. And to explain why we would feel discontent, unease, and even a lack of simple happiness because we don't have a clearly culturally sanctioned role to guide how we live our lives.

I'm arguing that we have further to go. Our ties to our biology are being broken so that now for the first time in femaledom we can shape culture with men. It's funny that, culturally, we tend to see men as lustful beasts, driven by their sexuality, when actually men as a whole are less tied to their role in reproduction for their identity than women are. Think about it: from 100,000 years ago to about seven thousand years ago, males and females of our species lived in kin networks and small tribes where both shared in the work of procreation and survival. The roles of both men and women were tied to food gathering and rearing children. There was no empire building, only the demands and needs of close cohabitation. These cultures were not usually warlike (except in dire circumstances) and have been described as egalitarian because there was little hierarchy, even in terms of gender. But when life conditions changed dramatically (due to rapid climate change, invasion, food shortages, etc.), men typically stepped forward to innovate and create the new, in order to protect women and children so that the tribe, as a whole, could survive. For the past, oh, seven thousand years, men by and large have created culture -- and thereby created an identity for themselves based on something other than their role in reproduction -- while women have created children, which is, again, our role in reproduction.

It's only been about 50 years since women could control our fertility and begin to forge an identity for ourselves in culture that goes beyond our biological role. Note that I'm not saying that mothering is bad or wrong -- just that it's almost all that the females of the species have been doing for the last 100,000 years. Only very very recently do we have the freedom to create new ways of being that could be the ground for a new order of relationship, creativity, and innovation that will evolve culture to a higher level. That will, as Douthat perceives, demand a new moral order -- not just to ensure that women can safely bear and raise kids, but to outline the contours of a new culture. To me, it makes sense that women are less happy. We're in a huge transition. There is no one before us. And what is happening -- as women's sexuality is pried from reproduction and commodified -- is frightening to anyone who is seeking a life of meaning and purpose. Where are the examples of women who are forging from depth and dignity something new, joyous, and creative? Where are the role models for a new world? Without some women daring to ask who we can be now, risking everything to free themselves from the women they have been to discover the woman of the future, young women will be left adrift in the marketplace, selling themselves short. Isn't that enough to make any sensitive woman unhappy?