If JK Rowling had lived in America, chances are she might never have written Harry Potter–as she famously did while
on public assistance in the UK. She would probably have been so worried about
health insurance for herself and her children that she would have continued
working an unsatisfying job, unable to take a chance on the imaginary boy
wizard with glasses who lived in her head. The loss for the world would be
dramatic, but the loss for her personal happiness would be perhaps even more
As the fight for health care reform ramps up in Washington, it’s important to keep JK
in mind, extreme case though she may
represent. We need to consider the benefits beyond
physical well-being to our society–and particularly for the women in it–of a secure social
safety net, particularly health care but also subsidized day care and fair family leave
policies. Not only does a safety
net mean a healthier population, but it means a more creative,
happy one. And that would be a crucial gain for women, who more often fulfil
the social role of providing for relatives, families, and children. That role requires
the kind of financial stability which may render an outside-the-box pursuit of happiness elusive.
This is all particularly relevant given the the media‘s interest in picking apart what makes women
happy, and what doesn’t. A few months ago, conservatives quickly seized upon a Wharton School of Business study
as evidence of feminism’s failure. The study’s results
indicated that overall and across demographic lines, women reported being less
happy now than they were several decades ago, despite better standards of
living and opportunities. A closer look at the survey’s results and even its
authors’ own interpretation doesn’t in any way indicate feminism’s shortcomings.
As countless feminist scholars and writers from Faludi hooks and Wolf on down have
documented, the entry of women into equality in many areas has led to backlash
in other, less tangible ones: psychologically damaging media portrayals, the rise
of the beauty myth and diet industry, the endless expectation to be both perfect
employees and ideal family anchors, and the feminization of poverty among them.
Our own written feminist history then, points out that huge obstacles to happiness
remain for many women.
Therefore this study, and the U.S’s middling showing in world happiness surveys,
should remind us of the work that feminism has yet to do. And that work is
creating a society in which women’s personal and career choices are genuine
ones, not made of necessity or desperation. Just as reproductive justice aims
to support women no matter what choices they make with their bodies, feminism
means fighting for a safety net that opens up other life choices.
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But first of all, it’s important not to take the Wharton study, "Padadox of Declining Female Happiness" at 100% face
value (Another professor at UPenn offers
a critique of the language of the report and particularly the way it
was picked up by Ross Douthat here).
As the writers themselves openly acknowledge, there are a number of
factors that make it impossible to gauge objective happiness and whether that
happiness has decreased. For one, we live in the post-psychotherapy era, and so
people are more comfortable telling
a researcher about their frustrations or even their depression. This
particularly applies to women. It’s not that we all used to walk around in
Betty Draper-esque zombiedom pretending everything was peachy — but certainly
deeper discontentment among women wasn’t openly acknowledged. Second of all, as the authors
themselves particularly note, the increased number of choices we’ve won for
women, not just between child-raising and working but in all areas of life,
from school to career to where to live, may have resulted in increased anxiety
about making those choices. I’d note that that the social weight on different
choices has not dissipated as much as it should, so while we are free to decide
how to dress, act and raise kids if we want them, the stigma attached to
certain "unfeminine" or "too feminine" paths can create stress. The authors
also observe that
women are now comparing their happiness to higher expectations raised by the
women’s movement as well as comparing it to the perceived happiness of the
whole population, not just other women like them. These changed points of
reference may make women assess their lives differently and more critically. So in fact these results may be an example of
feminism’s success in teaching women what is possible.
But whether or not women’s happiness has appreciably decreased, guaranteed health care coverage is a way to help
it increase. The gains made by feminism have opened huge doors to women in the workplace and
academy–but we haven’t yet caught up on the services side. We haven’t made necessary supports like
childcare, health care and sick
leave off all that much easier. And meanwhile our economy has
shifted towards contract,
freelance and part-time jobs, union power has decreased,
the wealth gap has increased, while family structures have shifted to more
single and juggling households. This means that for many, the struggle to pay
the bills has become all-consuming, leaving less time to follow our
dreams–whether that’s to start a business, learn painting, teach a class or
Matt Yglesias wrote in May that universal health care would
stimulate entrepreneurship. Without it, he says, we have "job lock"
where people stay in one career place because they are scared to lose
insurance. Without job lock, we’d have more new businesses and more people
willing to join new businesses. He added that as well as the economic benefits,
we’d get more artistic endeavors from part-time workers, citing Canadian rock
music as an example. As the Rowling story proves, allowing more creativity to
flourish at worst boosts happiness for one person–at best it provides
increased pleasure for millions who experience that person’s output.
I’d add that crucially, in addition to encouraging more entrepreneurs and
artists in general, universal health would free up a different segment of the population to start businesses or other
For instance, there’s been a recent media frenzy over
"mompreneurs" who combine parenting with starting businesses that are
often aimed at other parents like themselves. But most of the women profiled in
these stories tend to be from one socioeconomic demographic. They either have
spouses whose income and insurance allow them the freedom to experiment–or
they themselves have worked in a lucrative industry long enough to have amassed
their own capital, investors and networks. But what if a host of other
parents–single moms, low income moms, more moms of color, and even dads–could
also have the flexibility to start businesses aimed at people like themselves?
Again, that freedom would give a jolt to their own happiness as well as the
happiness of those they serve.
According to two Business Week surveys (here and here), key factors beyond financial ones that
contribute to a nation’s happiness are health care, education, tolerance,
gender equality and freedom of choice. And the fact is that those different
factors feed directly into each other–particularly into freedom of choice. The
optimistic and ambitious spirit in America, in my mind, may be what puts us
ahead, in happiness measures, of some countries with better social services
than we have (that and the terrible weather in places like the UK). But right
now, that spirit only becomes reality for some Americans and it needs to be
accessible to all. Universal health care with a public option will open up far
more doors than the one to the doctor’s office.