What Do Women Want? Again…


Posted on June 1st, by Elizabeth Debold in Blog, Cultural Evolution, Culture, Gender, Uncategorized. 13 comments

Sorry about using that tired question “what do women want?” to start off this post. Freud asked it–likening women’s consicousness to a dark continent both unexplored and presumably unknowable–and every exasperated male writer and far too many marketers have used it since. But the question is popping up again. In a recent New York Times op-ed column entitled “Liberated and Unhappy,”  Ross Douthat reports on an analysis by economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers that indicates that across race, marriage status, economic bracket, and even country, women’s subjective experience of being happy has declined both absolutely and in relation to men. Interestingly, in 1970–before the women’s movement so dramatically opened so many women’s life options–women were generally more happy than men. So, in the forty years since women in the West won their freedom to choose the lives that they want, they have become less happy. Fascinating, isn’t it?

The authors of the report, which is entitled “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” don’t have an answer to the obvious question: why? and why now? Of course, conservatives will undoubtedly argue that this proves that women were better off in their traditional at-home roles home before they were liberated into unhappiness, and progressives will counterargue that women’s dreams of liberation have been thwarted by institutions and customs that have not changed enough. Douthat doesn’t answer the question in his column either. He only alludes to a connection between women’s unhappiness and the rise in single motherhood, and suggests that we could use “a new-model stigma [against sexual irresponsibility that] shouldn’t (and couldn’t) look like the old sexism.” As he says,

There’s no necessary reason why feminists and cultural conservatives can’t join forces — in the same way that they made common cause during the pornography wars of the 1980s — behind a social revolution that ostracizes serial baby-daddies and trophy-wife collectors as thoroughly as the “fallen women” of a more patriarchal age.

Douthat’s reasoning is opaque, but he seems to be suggesting that women’s unhappiness is natural in a world where there is no obligation for men to stay with the women who bear them children.

I’d like to offer an interpretation that might include all of these perspectives. I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the bizarre twists our supposed sexual freedom has brought–such as the beautiful young co-ed who tried to sell her virginity over the internet to pay for school. (The bidding apparently reached $3.8 million–although it Natalie Dylandoesn’t seem that the “transaction” happened.) This entrepreneurial virgin seems to be saying, hey, losing my virginity is supposed to be a moment that I will value forever, but it seems like what I am most valued for is my virgin body, so why not sell it–I’ll surely remember that!  She sees herself as a smart actor in a materialistic culture that trades human values for cash value. She’s not wrong. But certainly Douthart’s and this young woman’s observations don’t create a very happy picture.

We women are at a strange point. Since the first hominids struggled upright, women’s role has been to bear and raise the next generation. Females have been charged with the survival of the species–our cultures have elaborated on that role and protected women’s capacity to bear children (and often prohibited anyone but a woman’s sanctioned mate from bearing children with her). How many thousands of years has a woman’s reproductive role been the source of her value and identity?

We no longer have this unique role to play in culture. Bearing children has become optional. Being a mate and mother, which has been the source of our dignity and standing in society since tribal days, is no longer an imperative. We are freed of the necessity to reproduce, liberated from our biological role, but the choices that we have won have left us unmoored. Who are we or who should we be now?

I’m obviously not the first person to note this–although most voices expressing such a view come from the right, urging us back to the safety and familiarity of hearth and home. I’m providing this context not to suggest that this is our God-given role, but rather to show how conditioned we are to see this as who we are and should be. And to explain why we would feel discontent, unease, and even a lack of simple happiness because we don’t have a clearly culturally sanctioned role to guide how we live our lives.

I’m arguing that we have further to go. Our ties to our biology are being broken so that now for the first time in femaledom we can shape culture with men. It’s funny that, culturally, we tend to see men as lustful beasts, driven by their sexuality, when actually men as a whole are less tied to their role in reproduction for their identity than women are. Think about it: from 100,000 years ago to about seven thousand years ago, males and females of our species lived in kin networks and small tribes where both shared in the work of procreation and survival. The roles of both men and women were tied to food gathering and rearing children. There was no empire building, only the demands and needs of close cohabitation. These cultures were not usually warlike (except in dire circumstances) and have been described as egalitarian because there was little hierarchy, even in terms of gender. But when life conditions changed dramatically (due to rapid climate change, invasion, food shortages, etc.), men typically stepped forward to innovate and create the new, in order to protect women and children so that the tribe, as a whole, could survive. For the past, oh, seven thousand years, men by and large have created culture–and thereby created an identity for themselves based on something other than their role in reproduction–while women have created children, which is, again, our role in reproduction.

It’s only been about 50 years since women could control our fertility and begin to forge an identity for ourselves in culture that goes beyond our biological role. Note that I’m not saying that mothering is bad or wrong–just that it’s almost all that the females of the species have been doing for the last 100,000 years. Only very very recently do we have the freedom to create new ways of being that could be the ground for a new order of relationship, creativity, and innovation that will evolve culture to a higher level. That will, as Douthat perceives, demand a new moral order–not just to ensure that women can safely bear and raise kids, but to outline the contours of a new culture. To me, it makes sense that women are less happy. We’re in a huge transition. There is no one before us. And what is happening–as women’s sexuality is pried from reproduction and commodified–is frightening to anyone who is seeking a life of meaning and purpose. Where are the examples of women who are forging from depth and dignity something new, joyous, and creative? Where are the role models for a new world? Without some women daring to ask who we can be now, risking everything to free themselves from the women they have been to discover the woman of the future, young women will be left adrift in the marketplace, selling themselves short. Isn’t that enough to make any sensitive woman unhappy?





13 responses to “What Do Women Want? Again…”

  1. Ross Robertson says:

    Am I allowed to comment here? :) Heck with it–Elizabeth, this is fantastic!! It answers so many questions, and opens up so many, many more . . . Kudos!

  2. Cezarina says:

    Dear Elizabeth,

    THANK YOU for this…”women daring to ask who we can be now, risking everything to free themselves from the women they have been to discover the woman of the future”…

    This woman archetype you are BRINGING unto the stage now vibrates with the woman I am observing unfolding before my eyes… Two and a half ago she left a strong marriage she had built for 11 years to go SEARCH for this very thing called ‘the woman of the future’… she had no clue where she was going, and how she even had the strength to walk away from all she ever knew. The journey brought her to Niger, West Africa…

    I asked her to let me taste her splendor, to show me how to accept her as she truly is…this sacred communion we have nurtured together for a little while served her well. This wild part of Africa she has beheld now for two years uncovered more of the untamed spirit within her inner world, more of the steps within the cosmic dance of the Mother Goddess… I took a step further into her passion, into the remaining shadows of her unfolding consciousness. The BEING and the ever BE-COMING aspect of life is her language in the making. She whispered a secret into my soul… this Cosmic Dreamer wants to burst out singing in an ancient unknown language that weaves the other worldly substance with melodies of this world, to dance in the open fields entranced by her cosmic lover who causes her to weep and celebrate the oneness of life in each breath, to paint with each movement of her body her own canvas of healing arts. I taste her tears of surrender… She knows that she has to go all the way to her chosen destination… there is no turning back. (Cezarina)

  3. Harold says:

    I guess there are no end of perspectives. I guess I see the next step, perhaps a al Barbara Max Hubbard as business, not as a meat market, but a creative place where we can shape the future. Men are creators also. The world needs the femine touch or it wont be worth living. I think women are disatisfied with the world and rightly so. Change it or we all perish and that is not something to be happy about. You don’t have to be mean or wispy, just do it.

  4. I wonder if it can be distilled more simply.

    When women figured out a way to release themselves from the “traditional” female role, instead of creating a wholly new model/paradigm/role (whatever you want to call it) for themselves, too many donned the preexisting, dysfunctional male role of capitalist conqueror. No doubt a sweeping generality, but nonetheless a generality that has been bad for everybody.

    I think you hit the nail on the head encouraging the need for a new order of relationship, creativity, and innovation. It’s up to each of us women to search for where that trail head begins and then to set off on it. Individually and together.

    In other words, we need to boldly go where no man has gone before.

    Sorry. That was too good a line was to pass up. : )

  5. Martin says:

    I would like to add some more perspectives. First: men, also, are looking for their new role(s) in the future world – which is an expression of evolution in an environment of turmoil. Women are for one thing getting a taste of what it means to take on a more creative but also riskier identity, having not much of a safety net below. But maybe even more important, I don´t believe they are getting the amount of acknowledgement by men, that used to be tied to their conservative role behaviour, and surely aren´t getting the amount they deserve for boldly taking on the challenge of struggling and seeking for the new! :-)

  6. athene says:

    There aren’t many times I see the cultural references made about women being happier prior to the women’s movement. When it took place in full force I was an unhappy 10 ot 11 year old, who saw my life as being filled with children and taking care of some man. I was furious and quite a load to handle about this nefarious place I was to inhabit ( get into the box and like it). Who in the world decided this for me!

    Living through the movement I became still more maddened, I was expected to evolve, while what I would accept as a mate still grunted and scratched. I have watched as I became even more en-meshed in the “family myth”, taking on responsibilities that were herculean as I wielded my new found freedom and power. My grunting and scratching counterpart plied me with guilt on a two-fold front: my children and OUR relationship. The media has spent years and countless toner cartridges reminding me I can’t have it all…he can, but I can’t, because of my innate/ inherent emotional nature nurturing. Hogwash, I don’t want to be the man ( your box sucks more than mine), I don’t even want to be the woman, I just want the freedom to be ME, and whatever that is without some sly, backhanded emotional tweaking that is supposed to remind me of MY PURPOSE. Who decided my limited functions and what arrogance allowed that to become the standard!

    In 60 years I am still sorting out my purpose and never once have I looked into my panties or bra for an answer. As a woman I have to say even I don’t know what women want, only what this one wants. I want the opportunity and the freedom to explore all the gifts, talents and curiosities I have. I want to do this without someone believing it’s their right to TEACH ME HOW TO BE A WOMAN. I want the same opportunity to explore the world and impart what I have learned while doing it. I want to be thought of as an excellent mentor for a man, without anyone thinking about me as a woman. I WANT MORE THAN ANYTHING TO BE A PERSON, HUMAN, COMPETENT, CAPABLE of being a mother, leader, guru, expert, a model Human being that any gender could find value in. The help-mate, nurturer, partner, assistant label creates another place for me to step into and own…I AM A LIVING , BREATHING, TALENTED, and EXTRAORDINARILY UNIQUE human being, as a woman I just want to be able to manifest who I am, without the ropes and chains that are placed on me because of gender. I want it in the corporate world, the culture and in my relationships with others. I just want everyone to back off and see me as human. I am a human first, then all the other stuff comes into play, but the only defining trait I have is HUMAN BEING.

    Traveling down this crazy road of women’s rights has been somewhat a blessing and a curse. Many woman have sought to be just who they are, human’s that look like women and others have captured imaginations and further defined us. This accounts for the confusion about “WHAT WOMEN WANT”. We like men aren’t some one-size-fit’s all , we are individuals and as long as we continue to see each other as “them”, instead of people, this question will never be answered and strife in what could bring us together will remain. What do women want…to be seen, accepted, embraced, loved, nurtured, understood, communicated with as PEOPLE, HUMANS with all the glorious potential we have within us. Let us out of the boxes and it will free you from the narrow constricts being male has meant.

  7. Elizabeth, this is a very late comment. Took me a while to get round to it.

    You ask, “Where are the examples of women who are forging from depth and dignity something new, joyous, and creative? Where are the role models for a new world? Without some women daring to ask who we can be now, risking everything to free themselves from the women they have been to discover the woman of the future, young women will be left adrift in the marketplace, selling themselves short. Isn’t that enough to make any sensitive woman unhappy?”

    At the risk of immodesty, let me say that I have seen myself since I was eight years old as a possible model for women seeking to discover the woman of the future. At 76 years of age, I published “Knowing Woman, Nurturing the Feminine Soul,” which I invite you and your readers to read and ponder. Knowing Woman reflects on the struggles and rewards of being a traditional woman in traditional religion, having four children before becoming the first woman cabinet director/assistant to the governor in the State of Washington, joining an eastern spiritual community, and finally embracing the divine feminine.

    I have no desire to set myself up as a guru; Knowing Woman simply says take a look at my experiences, then take a look at your own…value your inner knowing and let’s see where that takes us.

    It’s been fascinating to meet with younger women who don’t have the view of life I started with in 1932. I continue to learn and grow from the experience.

    Blessings and joy, Jo

  8. hannalisa says:

    for starters …

    it’s still all about BODIES!

  9. Leah says:

    Elizabeth, it seems to me that this statement of yours: “Females have been charged with the survival of the species” is at the heart of the issue – with or without the bearing of children.

    It is a mighty responsibility – and potentially a rallying cry to unite the energy of all women in whichever way we are able to contribute – since the survival of our species is so closely linked with the inter-dependent web of life on this tiny sphere hurtling through space.

    And I suspect that our level of happiness correlates with two things: a) Our sense of connection with a purpose/meaning beyond our own “wee life” (such as survival of the species) and b) Our perceived locus of control over both our “wee life” and that much larger game called “survival of the species”.

    Harold’s words are entirely appropriate here: “The world needs the femine touch or it wont be worth living. I think women are disatisfied with the world and rightly so. Change it or we all perish”.

    To counteract perceived powerlessness: while we can think globally, we need to act locally. The feminine voice has a crucial place in the “global tribal” conversations – at home; with our husbands, fathers, brothers, freinds; with out daughters, mothers, sisters, friends; at work; in the schools; in the communities; in the nations we belong to. We need the courage to speak up and act in accordance with our mandate. Together we can impact the planetary system we live in. Every one of us makes a difference. The survival of our species depends on it…

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Leah. My sense, which may seem pretty out there, is that we women are going to have to let the safe small snug world of survival and children go in a very deep way before we will be able to discover who we can be–and that will save the world. That doesn’t mean not having kids or being mothers. But our identification with this role has to break in order that something truly new can emerge that will be a feminine power that we cannot imagine.

  10. Karen says:

    I’ve found freedom and happiness in owning a horse, which I share with my daughter. Also being in my 40s is liberating as I am now free from the burden of childbearing, having had a lovely child, and a lovely elderly mother who is also now freed from traditional female roles/burdens, and I don’t care if I have a male partner or not………..get a life and get a horse, they are miracles for the soul – amazing!!



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