What's Wrong with Women Today? It's Complicated
The June 5 suicide of famed handbag designer Kate Spade has brought attention yet again to the plight of American women, who are killing themselves in ever-greater numbers.
According to Julie Phillips of Rutgers University, the rise in female suicides has been evident since about 2000. "The rate," according to her statements to the Daily Beast, "is highest today for women 45-64 who lack a college degree, which might be the result of weakened social interactions among Baby Boomers."1 Men still kill themselves far more often than women do—middle-aged white men account by far for the highest percentage of suicides in this century—but the number of women following suit is troubling.
Tying into this alarming rise in suicides, antidepressant use among American women is also up. Women are now twice as likely as men to be on a psychiatric drug of some sort, and long-term use is common.2 This is troubling because many of these drugs aren't intended to be taken for years at a time, and we don't yet know much about how such use affects the body.
Why are women seeking these remedies more than men? One answer is that women are more likely than men to seek medical care of any kind, and even more so when it comes to mental health. But another answer, according to psychiatrist Dr. David Muzina, is that "women are bearing the brunt of the emotional stressors around us: they're working, raising the kids, trying to juggle all these issues, getting all these things done, and they're more likely to reach out and ask for help."3
In other words, women's lives are crazy-complicated, and evidence indicates that women aren't handling things as well as we like to tell ourselves they are, and perhaps not as well as they used to. If you need further proof of this, see the Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers paper entitled, tellingly, "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness."4 The authors conclude, "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 happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men." Women were happier in the 1970s than they are today.
More Freedom, Less Happiness
What is going on here? In an era in which women have achieved more economic and personal freedom than, arguably, ever before in history, why are they so unhappy?
There is no easy answer to such questions. Women are working more, taking care of their own children less, and divorcing in far greater numbers at older ages—Kate Spade had been separated for ten months, although her husband insists that divorce was never under discussion—than they used to, and it is very likely that these are contributing factors. Feminists assert that greater freedom and a wider range of options notwithstanding, women still find themselves bumping against gender stereotypes in pursuit of their goals, and when they can't get past them, they are left unfulfilled.
What is clear is that there is something drastically wrong with American womanhood. "Women's liberation"—the push to get every able-brained woman into a cubicle—has not turned out to be all it was cracked up to be. In fact, it may have turned out to be the opposite: Wolfers and Stevenson speculate at the end of their essay that "the changes brought about during the women's movement may have decreased women's happiness. The increased opportunity to succeed in many dimensions may have led to an increased likelihood of believing that one's life is not measuring up."5
With more opportunities come greater expectations of achieving a wildly successful life on all fronts. Think of the woman who enjoys a highly successful career, is publishing her first novel, is raising beautifully behaved children, has a home straight off of Pinterest, volunteers at the local women's shelter, sings in her church choir, and enjoys knitting while sitting next to the pool on family vacations in the Caymans. Actually know any such women? Me neither. It's not realistic. But it's the image in our heads.
Fewer Ties, More Isolation
Stevenson and Wolfers also cite "decreased social cohesion," studied most extensively by Robert Putnam,6 as a potential contributing factor to the unhappiness phenomenon. Traditional American social institutions, says Putnam—think of the PTA, churches, the Lions Club and other fraternal organizations, volunteer organizations like the Red Cross, and many others—have all seen drastic drops in membership in recent years.
One particular "social institution"—namely, church—bears further scrutiny. A 2015 study by the Pew Research Center found that the "Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing."7 In a mere eight-year period (2007-2014), the share of Americans who identified themselves as "Christian" dropped by eight percent. The fastest-growing segment across all generations is the "religiously unaffiliated"—those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular.
This trend has been going on for the better part of a century. In 1948, only two percent of Americans described themselves as having no religious affiliation.8 In 2017, that number reached 20 percent. In 1952, 75 percent of Americans said that religion was "very important" in their lives. That number bottomed out between 1975 and 1980 at 52 percent, and since 2012 has been hovering at around 56 percent.9 These are big changes, and they signal far more than a mere drop-off in one of many social institutions. America is losing faith, and that loss has coincided with some of the most active years of the women's liberation movement.
All of these factors—decreased social cohesion, loss of faith, and different, more complicated roles for women—are, I suggest, combining to make women miserable. We are doing more, doing too much even, and doing it alone—without the help of each other, and without seeking the aid of God.
Ways to Prepare & Cope
There are ways that women, young women especially, can prepare for these realities and shield themselves from their worst effects. For instance, young women who suspect that they will want to have children some day should know, for starters, that statistics indicate that most women with children would actually prefer to work part-time.10 So if you're 17 and thinking about college, but also dreaming of having a family someday, perhaps you should also think about ways in which you could tailor your education to facilitate a part-time or work-from-home career in the years immediately afterwards, when you are likely to have young children. That career could gradually be ramped up as your children get older and need less attention, and then finally head out on their own.
But perhaps the most important thing women can do to protect themselves is simply to recognize the problem, and to understand that the American woman's dream of a corner office, 2.1 children, a golden retriever, and a house in the suburbs may not be all it's cracked up to be. Think outside the box. Don't be afraid to simplify your roles—wife, mother, friend, volunteer, employee—enjoying one or two at a time instead of five or six. Go to church.
Recognition of the issue is the first place to start. May God give us his aid as we seek to establish healthy roles and connections once again.Nicole M. King
is the managing editor of the Howard Center's quarterly journal, The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy.This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #46, Fall 2018 Copyright © 2019 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo46/disenchanted