Last Monday, Jessica Valenti published an article in The Guardian entitled ‘Why are women so “unhappy”?’ Bold and to-the-point, it took on, in a few short paragraphs, a million pervasive aspects of contemporary and historical forms of social control of women, and the pseudo-science used to back them up. It was very refreshing to see her single out the issue of social injustice and extricate it from the mire of individualisation in which many columnists tend to lose themselves. She stated: ‘The more important question to ask ourselves isn’t “Why aren’t women happy after feminism?”. It is “Who cares?” – “happiness” isn’t the goal of feminism.’ Her argument addressed very succinctly the fact that individual cases of female ‘happiness’ are not related to the feminist struggle. Feminism is a movement to combat gender-based inequality in society and to benefit women’s quality of life as a result – not vice versa. Assuming the latter feeds into the non-argument that women don’t have it so bad because some individuals managed to triumph over the social prejudice against them – this line of reasoning is the same as that which suggests that people living in poverty are simply too lazy to get rich. She responds to the suggestion that individual women have become more ‘unhappy’ since their social position began to improve thanks in part to feminist campaigns with a simple explanation:
‘It could be true that women report more unhappiness since feminism’s gains of the 60s and 70s. Maybe the trade-off for having our eyes opened to inequality is feeling a little miffed about getting the short end of the stick. Dissatisfaction seems a fairly normal reaction to injustice.’
What she also made very clear was that it is patronising towards women to reduce the struggle against oppression to an issue of individual happiness: it suggests that feminism is merely a hobby for educated women with too much time on their hands – a ‘project’ to keep them occupied. As she points out,
‘There’s nothing “happy” about fighting to end rape, to end discrimination, or for the right to be considered capable enough to decide what happens to our own bodies. Feminists aren’t pleased to point out the injustices of the world, but we know it’s necessary for change.’
This also neatly counters the persistent idea that women fighting against social injustice are merely argumentative harridans who would be so much more fun (read: socially acceptable) if they just tried to be a bit more cheerful about their lot in life – a trope that has been regularly trotted out over the centuries to undermine women addressing social problems.
Another interesting point she made in her introduction, moreover, fed into a further ideological construct which I would like to examine in some further historical detail. She writes, ‘the culture doesn’t actually mind if women are unhappy – so long as we keep it to ourselves’, and goes on to point out:
‘Women’s distress directed inward – from eating disorders to feelings of inadequacy – keeps the status quo moving along, with diet pills selling through the roof and women asking for promotions far less often than their male counterparts. But when our dissatisfaction takes an outward turn, people get uncomfortable.’
This distinction between ‘unhappiness’ ‘directed inward’, which can be stretched to include personal subversion of social strictures without upsetting the status-quo, and public defiance of the existing social hierarchy is still often blurred in analyses of historical instances of both. We frequently see this in feminist studies of Victorian women’s lives. Such studies still too often hold up as progressive individual acts of subversion that slightly relieved the burden of social inequality on the particular woman concerned (who would probably not have been considered worth researching if she hadn’t done anything of this kind). Examples include evidence of women influencing their husbands by controlling the household money or withholding sex. I appreciate that feminist criticism in the 1960s and 1970s, which was still establishing the monumental project of uncovering women’s history and women in history, celebrated discoveries such as these as evidence of female agency throughout history, but I think that, while we recognise the individual bravery and resourcefulness involved in acts such as these, we can no longer ignore the tragedy which caused these women to have to channel their talents into these acts of self-preservation, rather than more constructive projects. Anecdotes like these are subversive but not progressive, and did little to benefit the social position of women as an oppressed group.
It is easy to forget, as well, how often these instances we celebrate were related to class or other privilege. If we read these historical incidents as evidence that individual subversion was a possibility for women, we begin to place the onus for the oppressed position of women in general on those who were too much affected by it to subvert it – which is merely another face of the idea that women should simply be more ‘cheerful’. Whilst I am more than ready to acknowledge the importance of articles such as Amanda Vickery’s ‘Golden Age to Separate Spheres’ (The Historical Journal, 36.2, June 1993), as deconstructing the prevalence of the notion of the ‘angel in the house’, the examples she gives are all drawn from a wealthy upper class where women had more freedom and influence in any case. Critics like Leslie Hume and Karen M. Offen make very clear that it was much more difficult for ‘less-affluent women’ (Victorian Women, ed. by Erna Olafson Hellerstein et al., 1981: 279) publicly to ignore or run counter to social strictures. As I have put forward in earlier posts, the social privilege of some women involved in Victorian campaigns for social equality in fact often helped to polarise women by class, with middle-class women using their influence in campaigns on behalf of working-class women to promote their own social and political emancipation, and working-class women often remaining passive objects and victims in the discourse created by their middle-class ‘benefactors’. This class-based distinction (also incorporating distinctions related to ethnic and cultural background, disability, sexual orientation etc.) has continued to affect the unity of feminist campaigns to the present day. Celebrating small individual triumphs, usually by already privileged women within a socially acceptable sphere of influence, as equally progressive as campaigns against social inequality risks strengthening these divisions and casting further aspersions on those groups already doubly oppressed by social structures.