happily unreasonable… and unreasonably happy*

First, two quick news items.

Number one: this Saturday is the Toronto GRUE! That’s the infamous rope and kink unconference run by Graydancer (of the Ropecast Weekly podcast) in collaboration with local kinster JP. It’s at Goodhandy’s from 10 to 6 on Saturday, followed by a Northbound Leather party in the same venue. Get more information at The Control Enthusiast or just go ahead and register by e-mailing grue at thecontrolenthusiast dot com. Tix are $40 a head. Go! Go!

Number two: I totally forgot to post a link to my latest article in the Xtra, which celebrates the 10th anniversary of the Toronto Women and Trans Bathhouse. The anniversary event itself is over now, as is the bathhouse itself (and what a fun one it was!), but if you’re a queer history buff like me, you’ll doubtless be interested to learn a bit about how it all began and where it’s all gone over the past decade.

And speaking of the past…

*I originally posted this on March 23, 2006. Interestingly it ties into the question raised in my post earlier this week about biased research and biased presentation of research results, only here we’re not talking about queers or kinky people, but plain old misogyny. I am sometimes still amazed that people still find the time and energy to waste on work that directly contradicts all semblance of logic, not to mention the ample evidence of the enormous social progress that has been achieved by women in the past 50 years. But at least it’s entertaining to pick apart such research and poke fun at it!

Sociological research has always fascinated me. When I was a teenager, I used to clip or remember magazine articles that supported my points of view – which were many and vocal even fifteen years ago! – and use them to back up whatever my latest argument was. “But Dad, a study from Johns Hopkins says that eating chocolate is good for you!” (Well, that one’s true. Maybe it wasn’t Johns Hopkins, but it was an equally credible source. But I digress.)

When I took my Feminism and Research Methods course in undergrad, though, I learned to be a lot more suspicious of research in general, or at the very least to approach it with more of a critical perspective instead of a sponge-like, “if they write it it must be true” sort of view.

So when I read articles like the recent one on slate.com, entitled “Desperate Feminist Wives: Why Wanting Equality Makes Women Unhappy,” my eyebrows instantly head for my hairline.

Now, part of the problem here is the rather sensationalistic title that does a poor job of conveying the nuance of the article itself. But part of the problem is that the authors of the sociological study the article refers to have put quite a slant on their findings. The short version: two sociologists carried out a huge study of married women and rated their happiness levels, and then correlated those happiness levels with how “progressive” or “traditional” the women’s values were. Apparently the most progressive women are the least happy.

According to the article, “The study’s authors, W. Bradford Wilcox and Steven Nock, speculate that fault-finding on the part of wives makes it hard for men to do the emotional work that stabilizes marriages.”

Needless to say, that statement alone makes me wonder just what sort of viewpoint they took and what decisions they made before they even carried out the study. A few other things are equally problematic, and raise a number of critical questions for me – I don’t want to copy out the entire article here, so by all means do go and read it (it’s a quick read) if you want to make your own opinions.

First of all, the idea of happiness is pretty nebulous. Anytime you have a study in which people are relied upon to report their own feelings and opinions, you have the advantage of hearing personal narrative, but the disadvantage of relying exclusively upon their statements to build your conclusions, as opposed to having any sort of “objectively” (as far as objectivity exists) verifiable data. What this means is that the data is necessarily questionable.

If you get a bunch of traditionally-minded women to tell you whether or not they’re happy in their marriages, it’s entirely possible that many will say “yes” and mean it wholeheartedly. But it’s equally possible that some will feel they should be happy, because their traditional values tell them they should be, and so they may answer yes despite a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction, or their growing Valium habit, or their certainty that darling hubby is boinking his secretary. It’s about endeavouring to measure up to what they think they should feel, rather than acknowledging what they do feel.

It’s also possible that some of them may say yes to a researcher even if privately they’re well aware they feel otherwise – it’s a known phenomenon for research subjects to provide the answers they think the researchers want to hear.

And how, exactly, is happiness defined, anyway? Here’s another thought: what if a bunch of women in this survey respond “yes” to happiness because they grew up being taught that they should expect x, y and z out of life, and now they have it? For dreamers and forward-thinkers and other sorts of progressives, being told “expect x, y and z” is motivation to think, “Nuh-uh, I want much more than that,” whereas for someone traditionally-minded, those values might be taken for granted and internalized. I don’t mean to insult or devalue these women’s opinions, and if they truly do feel happy in their situations, more power to them. But I can’t help thinking there might be at least some percentage in there who simply never grew to expect anything else, so their definition of happiness is perhaps simpler and narrower than the way a progressive might define theirs. You know – if happiness is defined as “marrying a husband who provides for me and having two wonderful children,” and that’s what you get, then great. But if happiness is defined as “marrying someone who inspires me, feeds my soul, and grows as a person with me for a lifetime, with an amazing sex life, a beautiful home, travel and adventure, living up to our political ideals and changing the world, oh and having a great career and happy kids too, and publishing my novel on the side,” then perhaps it’s easier to feel dissatisfied even if you end up with the x, y and z that would make your traditionalist neighbour feel quite pleased.

That’s no cause for coming up with weird conclusions about how being progressive makes you miserable, as though being progressive were something one should avoid for the sake of good mental health. As the article says, “A progressive-minded woman doesn’t just have higher expectations; she’s more likely to pay attention to every setback, and see her husband’s failure to listen at dinner as evidence of larger inequity.”

Yes, but from there to concluding that progressive women “worry endlessly over choices,” as though all feminist wives were neurotic nitpickers who clock their husbands’ listening time and count how many times they do the dishes, or who agonize at every turn – “Do I take the kids to soccer or go to the business meeting? If I buy Pizza Pockets for dinner, does that make me a bad wife? If I make gourmet, am I being a pushover?” – it seems like quite the leap. I mistrust the language at play here, and the evident assumptions that progressive means unnecessarily critical. The underlying message seems to be that there’s something silly about women who have high expectations, as though those expectations were to blame for their dissatisfaction. Seems like another way of “blaming the victim” – you know, like saying it’s the women’s fault for being grumpy about things instead of the world’s fault for not changing fast enough.

Now let’s go a step further and question the premise of the study. If the study specifically looked at people who are married, in my mind that right there will bias the results. Or at least give an incomplete picture of what’s actually going on among women in society. Feminists have been criticizing the institution of marriage for generations now, and as a result, new forms of relationship have become much more common.

In fact, I did some research of my own on last summer for a discussion with a friend from San Francisco with whom I love to have ridiculously geeky e-mail conversations about all kinds of sexuality-related stuff. (I knew I was gonna use this one day!) It’s obviously not data that can be compared easily to the stuff used in the study, if for nothing else than the study was done in the States and I got data about Canada. But for the purposes of discussion, it’s interesting nonetheless. I spent several hours poring through the Stats Canada site and the Quebec population statistics site, and came up with the following…

In Canada, the crude marriage rate per 1,000 population was 4.7 in 2002 – apparently unchanged from 2001, which was a record low. The Canadian population in 2004 was 31,946,316, and of that, 15,540,151 were married, which works out to just shy of 49%. As for Quebec, the population in 2003 was 7,487,200, and of that, 59.2% are married. But the numbers are a little misleading in the provincial case – in Quebec, 17.1% of people are in what they refer to as “union libre,” which generally means common-law marriage, and in this province all you have to do is live together for 6 months and you’re considered common-law (unless you pretend to be roommates on your taxes). So “real” marriage is actually only at 42.2%. Also, in Quebec at least, the younger people are, the less likely they are to marry at all – for people aged 20-24, 86% of men and 81% of women who are “en couple” (i.e. partnered) opt for common-law, whereas when you get up to people who are aged 65 to 69, that drops to 8% and 6%. In other words, if it weren’t for the government’s decision that six months of sharing an apartment is tantamount to marriage, a huge percentage of young people wouldn’t be married by anyone’s definition, including their own.

How is that all relevant here? Well, basically, it looks like the US-based sociological study in question looked at women’s happiness within the institution that’s the least likely to appeal to progressive women, and used that data to come to conclusions about progressive women rather than to come to conclusions about the institution. What I’m getting at is that more and more women – quite possibly progressive ones, though likely some more traditional ones too – are opting not to get married at all, but to find their happiness in other forms of relationships. So if you take marriage, i.e. one of the less appealing options for women of a progressive mindset, and look to see how the ones who’ve gone for it anyway are doing, of course it makes sense that they may not feel entirely happy with things.

I wonder how different the study’s results would have been if its scope had been widened to include women within relationships in general, rather than specifically married ones. I also wonder – though of course once again, this really doesn’t fit in with the US model – how different the study would have been if it included queer couples. If you persist in looking at marriage as though it exclusively applied to two-gender couples, that leaves out a not-insignificant portion of the population whose marriages by definition don’t fit into the model of the gendered relationships that this sort of study attempts to investigate. How would the data be different if it included people who fell outside the “traditional” male-female pairing? Would progressives be happier there? I can only wonder.

It seems to me that the idea of a single relationship model being sufficient to satisfy the vast diversity of people out there in the world is ludicrous in the first place. To me, this study only serves to confirm that idea, rather than to make any more deeply valuable commentary on the correlates between marriage, feminism and happiness on a larger scale. I personally find it very inspiring to see people coming up with new forms of relationship everywhere I turn – inventing their families, loves and lives from scratch based on what fits best for them, rather than trying to fit those families, loves and lives into a pre-established framework. I’d like to think these people are some of the happiest of all – not because of success in emulating an existing model, but for the very reason that they’re exploring new grounds and doing things that work for them.

George Bernard Shaw once said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Switch the hes and mans to shes and womans, and this seems to apply quite perfectly to the situation at hand.

However challenging it may be, I hope to keep trying to adapt the world to myself. And I hate to break it to the sociologists, but that eternal process of trying makes me so fucking happy it’s almost decadent. One might almost call it unreasonable.

2 thoughts on “happily unreasonable… and unreasonably happy*

  1. I come across this sort of thing all the time. It’s annoying when these sort of studies get picked up by the media, because then people end up referring to them without understanding the flaws in the methodologies.

    As for the study in question, the result seems pretty obvious to me. Progressive women go into marriage with ideals of equality and the like, only to find that they (still) end up doing most of the housework, child rearing, emotional caregiving, career sacrifices etc. Of course they’re going to be more disatisfied than the woman who goes into it with the bar set lower.

    whether to lay the blame on feminism, or on men failing to step up to the plate is a matter of interpretation (and I know which one I’m leaning towards).

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