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Across the nation, U.S. schoolkids are routinely taught that the Declaration of Independence guarantees “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The phrase is repeated endlessly as evidence of this country’s foresight and promise. Only later do most of us realize the truth: This covenant was not meant for everyone but was exclusively intended for white male property owners without regard for the poor, the nonwhite, or the female.
But what if, more than 200 years after the document’s signing, a new writ was crafted, this time extending the right to be happy to everyone residing within our national borders? Writer and attorney Jill Filipovic takes this question as the starting point for her new book, The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness, and she interrogates the ways social policy can be altered to promote a joyous birthright, especially for women.
“The idea that women are entitled not just to equality but to pleasure—to that term specifically, with its connotations of sex and hedonism and selfishness—remains taboo in political discourse,” she writes in the introduction. “What if, instead, the goal were happiness? Not at an individual level, with more yoga or self-care or Pinterest-perfect hobbies, but a political one. What would the world look like if our laws and policies prioritized feeling good?”
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The recipe for this is almost a no-brainer since what we need is obvious and deceptively simple. There’s the trifecta of safe housing; nutritious food; and health care. Then there’s access to clean water and air; high-quality, affordable child care; living wages; harassment-free workplaces; social programs that adequately provide for those unable to work; challenging and respectful public education; free time; peace; and legal equality to prosecute and eventually eradicate sexual violence and discrimination.
This list, of course, has long been advocated by feminists the world over as they’ve fought against sexism, challenged restrictive gender roles, and organized for expanded opportunities in the workplace and community. Not surprisingly, Filipovic champions these measures. She recognizes that happiness can be culturally specific and may differ from place to place. Nonetheless, she reports that “countries where people are happiest also tend to be more developed, are politically and economically stable, offer a decent social safety net, comply with human rights principles, and have low levels of corruption and high levels of public trust.”
At its most basic, happiness also includes sexual expression. But good sex doesn’t just happen; it requires open communication, trust, and freedom from fear. After all, it’s hard to relax or be sexually responsive when we’re worried about losing a job or being sexually assaulted, evicted, or deported. Similarly, fear of an unwanted pregnancy, coupled with lack of access to abortion, can also diminish sexual pleasure. Likewise, hunger.
So what to do? Filipovic interviewed 35 diverse women about their everyday routines—and what makes them happiest. Her conclusions counter the pervasive notion that it is feminism—not social constraints, sexist expectations, or a dearth of social programs—that keep women dissatisfied. Though there’s little consensus over whether U.S. women are, in fact, more woebegone than men, a frequently cited 2009 study has suggested that women’s sense of fulfillment has decreased since the 1970s. And, of course, since that decline coincided with the rise of modern feminism, pundits have raced to blame so-called “second wavers” for what ails America’s women.
But “what seems to be making women miserable,” she writes, “is being pulled in too many different directions and dedicating too many hours of the day—more than men—to unpleasant activities rather than pleasant ones. The source of our misery is trying to embody too many roles, to compete in a system built for someone else, with a government and often a workplace indifferent to our lives and needs.” What’s more, she writes that for many women, the constraints of being a stay-at-home wife and mother are stifling, confirming the “feminine mystique” that Betty Friedan identified more than 50 years ago.
Indeed as journalists like Arlie Hochschild have noted, feminism’s demand that male partners play an equal role in household maintenance is no longer front-and-center, and women continue to bear the burdens of everyday chores on top of paid work outside the home. This “double shift” gets old quickly, with only the upper echelons able to avail themselves of paid laborers to ease the load. “An economically stressed couple is at an immediate relationship disadvantage compared to a financially stable one,” Filipovic writes. Well, yeah.
Equally troubling, those women who eschew the 9-to-5, opt to remain childless, pursue nontraditional relationships, or sidestep coupledom completely are often greeted with the stink-eye from their families, friends, and neighbors. “Women who think they’re entitled to pleasure and happiness for themselves alone are cast as selfish and immoral,” Filipovic writes. “Women who seek out sexual pleasure are sluts, or the more condescending characterization, ‘They don’t respect themselves.’ Women who pursue the pleasure of achievement are overly ambitious careerists, and if they’re also mothers then they’re probably paying someone else to raise their children. Women who put their own desires even temporarily ahead of someone else’s—especially, God forbid, their children’s—are unfit parents and bad people.”
Yes, even in 2017, after a half-century of contemporary feminist rebellion and agitation, far too many people—women as well as men—continue to cling to these sickening tropes. The question is how to effectively challenge those who do so. And it is here that Filipovic’s otherwise incisive assessment falls short.
Indeed, her arguments rest on logic, academic research, and face-to-face interviews with a small cohort of racially diverse, but generally progressive, women of all classes and backgrounds. To a one, they expressed the desire to contribute to their communities in ways they find meaningful. They also expressed the need for social supports and time with people whose company they value—partners, offspring, and friends.
Missing are the actual voices of conservative activists and lawmakers—the white, heterosexual supremacists who believe women’s most important role is to be a submissive wife and mother, those who view women’s earnings as supplemental rather than financially and emotionally essential—who increasingly set policy and exert influence in statehouses and in Congress. To her credit, Filipovic did peruse a host of right-wing and fundamentalist websites and periodicals, but this does not offer any insight into breaking the logjam between their ideas and those of their more progressive sisters and brothers. It’s a large hole since it’s clear that conservatives will not simply die off and be replaced by those with a more liberal mindset.
Indeed, Filipovic reports some startlingly depressing statistics, gleaned from a 2015 New York Times article: “More than a third of employed millennial men without kids say that men should be the breadwinners and women should stay home with the children. And the numbers get worse among those who are already fathers; more than half of millennial fathers think heterosexual couples should fall into traditional roles.”
If this is true—and if traditional gender roles really do make the majority of U.S. women deeply unhappy—we clearly have a long way to go in ensuring more enlightened attitudes and promoting a vision that places happiness at the core of public policy. At the same time, we also know that legislative change is typically easier to win than ideological change. Furthermore, the interplay between the two can lead to backlash, progress, or a mix of both.
Filipovic makes many sound suggestions for concrete shifts to enhance our lives and improve the likelihood of our being happy: paid sick days and vacation time; access to health insurance and health care, including low-cost contraceptives and funded abortion; comprehensive sex education that normalizes LGBTQ existence and that emphasizes pleasure as well as procreation; and freedom from the indignities of racism, sexism, and abuse.
“Regulations punishing sexual harassment and other actions that make for inhospitable workplaces should be tightened,” she concludes, “and it should be easier for workers to join together to push back on poor treatment, whether that’s sexual harassment or inadequate pay.” Yes, she’s talking union, mobilizing collectively to win benefits such as paid childbirth or adoption leave for all parents, and establishing child care facilities that are government-funded and job-site specific.
These are not new demands. They are also not pie-in-the-sky. The challenge, though, is gaining traction for the idea that happiness is an entitlement and not a privilege. Sadly, while U.S. policymakers and national myths continue to give lip service to the pursuit of jubilation, it is deprivation, not exultation, that is as American as apple pie.