If you happen to be the sort of person who gets embroiled in conversations about the aims of feminism, then you're probably aware that the "right to happiness" doesn't crop up an awful lot. Which makes sense: When you're still fighting for basic things like women's reproductive freedoms and equal pay for equal work, it's tough to put something so frivolous as personal satisfaction at the top of the list.
Except that: Seeking out happiness isn't frivolous — and women are just as deserving of it as anyone else. Reporter and newly minted author Jill Filipovic puts that sentiment into clear-eyed perspective in her new book, The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness, which is about exactly what it sounds like, and is a must-read for any woman who has ever suffered the particular ennui that comes with knowing a deck is stacked against you and that you feel powerless to reshuffle it. But while The H-Spot is an engaging, fascinating account of how the system isn't working for women, it is also a blueprint for erecting one that might. We spoke to Filipovic about why happiness need not be a radical goal — and how feminism has made women miserable, just not for the reasons its detractors would have you think.
You were writing this book before Donald Trump was elected, and it came out not long after he took office. How has your perception of your own book changed between then and now?
“It changed in such sad ways! At the time, we at least had a male feminist-minded president of the United States, who not only moved the conversation, but also law and policy on a variety of women’s rights issues, forward. Not far enough, in my opinion, but we were in forward motion. I was writing with the assumption that progress on a lot of these issues was inevitable — especially on the really obvious ones, like paid parental leave and affordable child care, and that we would be seeing substantive policy changes in the foreseeable future.
“When Trump won the election, all of that came to a screeching halt. What we’re doing right now is very much playing defense against worse encroachment on our rights and liberties, and the big task of feminists is not only to push back on this very reactionary, very misogynist administration, but also to keep our eye on the ball of this big vision, for what feminism can be, and what kind of world it is that we’re trying to build, and to offer that as a counter narrative to what Trump and the GOP are trying to achieve.”
I have to be honest: Before reading your book, I don’t know if I ever considered “happiness” an innate aim of feminism.
“Right? Which is so sad because it’s like: What are we all doing here, if not try to live happy and fulfilling lives? It speaks to a really not excellent part of American culture, that we don’t think happiness is worthwhile in and of itself — that it seems frivolous.”
Down to business: How is the happiness deck stacked against women, particularly in 2017?
“In the Declaration of Independence, there is this promise that all men will be able to have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. [The founders] were talking about happiness in this sort of Aristotelian vision of what a good life looks like: a life that is about pursuing knowledge and purpose. So many of our laws and institutions were shaped, in our earliest days, to allow a select group of men that right — to have jobs that conferred upon them identity, to pursue higher education, to have access to public life, generally. While white women were relegated to domestic life — as were women of color, not just in their own homes but also inside the homes of other people, you had this invisible, unpaid labor that all went into allowing men to pursue their life path.
“When you move this up to the present, the feminist movement has been excellent at dismantling many of the formal structures that have kept women out of institutions, and we have a whole series of laws that try to give women access. But what we don’t have are institutions, laws, and policies that reflect the realities of women’s lives or the many barriers that women have run up against. There’s quite a long list of areas in which women face uphill battles — and a lot of those issues become exacerbated when women become mothers.
“One of the things that was most striking about writing my book was knowing it doesn’t have to be this way. We make our workplaces. We make our government. We make our laws and policies. These things were not conferred upon us by God. We can change them. And other countries have changed them. We as a nation have made a really clear choice, or at least the people in power have made a really clear choice, to maintain this structure, and to keep women at this particular disadvantage. Of course that makes us miserable."
You also write about how women will follow the “rules” that they expect to be a recipe for personal satisfaction in their lives, and then come out the other side unhappy. Why is that?
“A lot of women have this experience of playing by the rules — being good girls, doing well in school, doing all the things we’re supposed to be doing — and then, especially once we hit the workplace, coming up against these really stubborn barriers that we thought had been long dismantled. The number of times that I have been told throughout my career, ‘You can’t have it all, no one can have it all...' I don’t think that men ever hear that. Men don’t go to a million panel discussions about all the ways in which they can never have it all, or how to balance work and family.
"One of the reasons they don’t is that, among the higher educated classes, men and women, in roughly equal numbers, will say that they expect to share parental and workplace duties. But when you add in the question, ‘What if that becomes impossible?’ men say they expect their wives to take on most of the domestic duties. Women don’t say that: They still expect to work it out half and half. But what men envision winds up being what happens. And since we don’t have really any help from the government, women end up taking the more traditional domestic role, and men end up taking up the traditional breadwinner role — that even happens in two-income households, in terms of distribution of labor. Not having your expectations for your most intimate partnership line up with your reality of life: That’s a recipe for unhappiness."
That seems in line with this idea that has been popular over the last several years that women should stop looking for Mr. Perfect and lower their expectations a little.
“I think the advice that you should settle in romance is the worst possible advice. This is a person who, at least in theory, you’re going to be spending the rest of your life with, if all goes well. You should really, really like that person; that should not be the relationship, of all relationships, that you settle for.
“When it comes to personal happiness, obviously, the people you’re around day-to-day should be the ones you like the most! These are the people who are going to be very influential on how happy you feel, on how well you’re going to be able to pursue everything else you want in life. I obviously am not someone who would settle in my romantic life, and I certainly didn’t think I was someone who would settle down and get married — I happened to get very lucky and meet someone, and now we’re going to do that. But that said: If what a woman really wants is a nuclear family and kids and someone to be an involved father and a partner in raising their children, then I think you’ve got a pretty good argument not for settling, but for selecting someone who can offer you those characteristics. For some women, that’s actually a totally rational decision — but I just think the idea of a single romantic setup for everyone is pretty stupid, and not reflective of the diversity of human experience.”
“For a lot of women who don’t want to settle, the chance of you meeting the person who’s totally perfect for you for the rest of your life by the time you’re 25 — I think it’s pretty slim, and I think that’s a good thing. The more women are independent and educated and free, on the other hand, the higher expectations are for our partners — that’s a good thing. It makes for better marriages if you do choose to get married; it makes for happier single people who decide not to get married.”
It seems like strong female friendships have a directly proportionate relationship to the feminist pursuit of happiness, too. Do you agree?
“Female friends are crucial, not only to women’s happiness but also to the women’s movement — to political movements for women’s rights. One of the things I write about in the book is that, though I am currently living with a male partner, before that, I’d only lived with other women: I have spent 15 years sharing space with women. So I have learned very intuitively: It is possible to evenly distribute labor around the house. It is possible to redistribute emotional labor — to not have one person who’s always in charge of everyone’s feelings. It is possible to really, deeply commit yourself to loving another person in a way that isn’t primarily or even partly sexual. Those are all really good lessons about how to build and maintain and sometimes even dismantle a relationship. Obviously there is carryover into a romantic relationship — which doesn’t mean female friendships are good only insofar as they prepare you for marriage.
“Female friendships can be also be part of a necessary diversity of people that you need in your life and community. One thing that has been a very true of the 1950s America narrative is that suburban, nuclear family life, where they are isolated, cloistered away, is not good for women. It’s not good for us psychologically. It’s not good for us socially. It’s not particularly great for our families, either, as much as certain conservative attitudes tend to idolize that period in America.”
There is this ever-present criticism of feminism in general, that it makes women unhappy. How do we address that claim without giving it credibility?
“There is this study that came out several years ago that showed that women’s happiness has been declining since the ‘70s. All the headlines in response to the study were ‘Feminism Makes Women Unhappy’ or ‘Since Feminism, Women Are Unhappy.' But if you actually sit down and read it, what it was actually pointing to was the fact that women, post Second Wave, have entered the workforce and institutions of higher learning — these institutional, public, heavily male domains — but these institutional, public domains aren’t made for people who have babies or people who perhaps face sexual harassment, or lack of upward mobility at work, or because of certain gender stereotypes and assumptions.
“So yes: The truth is that, according to happiness surveys, women’s happiness has declined since the feminist movement began. You could say that’s because of feminism, sure. But a more accurate answer is that it’s because women are living in a more feminist cultural and social world but still dealing with pre-feminist workplace norms, assumptions, and institutions. And because the U.S. is this highly individual culture, that unhappiness falls on us as individuals to sort out, and it’s impossible. This is true whether you’re a white-collar worker or a minimum-wage worker who has several jobs to make ends meet: Everyone is overworked, overstressed, and facing a time crunch — which is obviously the most debilitating for people with kids. And because this is all put us on individually, a lot of women and a lot of men too, say: ‘Gosh, what seems easier: This, or when men went out and worked and women stayed home?’ It’s framed as a choice, but it’s reactionary, right wing kind of policies that force us into these positions and then brands them a decision we make."
And then we conflate a woman’s choice to work outside of the home and to try and balance it all as a selfish one that hurts her and her family, and makes her unhappy, rather than look at the whole picture, right?
“A very definitional part of womanhood is sacrifice. Mothers are supposed to sacrifice for their children. Women are supposed to sacrifice for everyone else’s comfort — that’s part of the kind of feminine duty, to be kind and gracious and generous and not to make anyone uncomfortable. When women transgress those norms, they’re punished for it. The idea that women have a right to be happy and have a right to pleasure: that concept, in and of itself, is met with an incredible amount of hostility. And it’s not just from the right, it comes from the left as well."
The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit Of Happiness, by Jill Filipovic, was released on May 2, 2017.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and length.