I almost don't want to give the New York Times the pageviews it was obviously courting in publishing Ross Douthat's stunningly underthought and journalistically sloppy column "Liberated and Unhappy." But those of you who've read Beth Skwarecki's article "Mad Science: Deconstructing Bunk Reporting in 5 Easy Steps" will immediately recognize the tricks Douthat uses in his "analysis" of the supposed link between the gains of feminism and the sad, benighted women it's left in its wake.
The 2007 study on which Douthat hangs today's column is called "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness," and was authored by two economists from The Wharton School of Business; reading it, it seems fair to say that, like many an interesting study, it makes a sweeping hypothesis — "By many objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women's declining relative happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men" — and then spends much of the following 44 pages explaining that it's not actually that simple, and exploring the many variables that may contribute to this decline. For instance, the social pressure on women of the 1960s and '70s to put on a happy face (even one that was chemically induced) is very likely a factor in the study's self-reporting; so is the probability that, as revealed in a study by another economist published around the same time as "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness," men have over the past several decades cut back on activities they don't like and, as a result, have more true leisure time; women —whose leisure time, particularly if they have families, is not their own—have less.
The upshot of the Wharton study is that while the authors start with the assertion that women today may be subjectively less happy than they reported being 35 years ago, the study itself is careful to dispense with continual reminders that correlation is, once again, not causation.
Douthat, well, doubts that. (Sorry. It was either that or calling him "Douchehat," which I still reserve the right to do.) He doubts it so much that he prefers to just interpret the study his own way, which not only involves not linking to a PDF of the document (just the abstract, with the inconvenient facts and stuff locked behind a paywall), but apparently barely skimming even enough of the study to cherry-pick from it.
Here's Ross's take: He is very sad for us women. We can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, etc., but our liberation is a sham. As he puts it, "All the achievements of the feminist era may have delivered women to greater unhappiness."
(You know. The feminist era. Which happened in the '70s, where women got everything they wanted by wailing and rioting and burning their bras and henpecking all the men until they were quiche-eating pantywaists who totally have no rights at all anymore. Oh, it was a crazy time, that feminist era!)
Well. Ross Douthat cares about our unhappiness. And furthermore, he knows why we're sad. It's not because we're working more, or because those of us partnered with dudes are still doing all the housework, or even because major daily newspapers keep hiring doughy, entitled white guys to write about how unhappy all us ladies are. No, we're unhappy because we're all single mothers! And Ross Douthat is not happy about that.
He'd like to propose a solution: Let's stigmatize the single mothers, because then there will be no more single mothers.
[Feminists and conservatives] should also be able to agree that the steady advance of single motherhood threatens the interests and happiness of women. Here the public-policy options are limited; some kind of social stigma is a necessity.
Oh yeah, that makes total sense. We really haven't been doing nearly enough to stigmatize sexually active women and the single mothers that some of them become. Let's get right on that. What's that you say? Single mothers don't impregnate themselves, and lots of them didn't intend to be single mothers? Well, okay then. Douthat will concede that "serial baby-daddies and trophy-wife collectors" should also be added to the stoning pit.
In a blistering takedown, Megan at Jezebel posts the actual study, and points out the many, many convenient omissions and obfuscations in Douthat's "analysis" — from ignoring the study's explanation that happiness is subjective ("…it should be noted that subjective well-being is both a function of the individual's personality and his or her reaction to life events. As such, correlations between life outcomes and happiness may not be causal") to highly selective linkage. (In making reference to a list of sexual offenders that "we" have refused to banish from the earth, Douthat links the phrase "prostitute-hiring politician" to former governer Eliot Spitzer, rather than, say, diaper-sporting, still-sitting Louisiana senator David Vitter.)
And not that the NYT asked me, but if they did, I'd be happy to tell them one way they might remedy women's unhappiness, since they really, really seem to care: If you insist on running version 3,094 on the Feminism Caused All Your Problems story, at least insist that folks like Douchehat (I'm sorry! It's too easy!) actually read the studies they report on.