Feminism, Social Change, and Women’s Happiness

The latter half of the 20th century has seen dramatic changes in the domestic and economic lives of women. In the economic sphere women’s labor force participation and real wages have increased dramatically. While only a third of working aged women were in the labor force in 1950, by 2000 that number had risen to nearly two thirds [1]. Women’s role in marriage has also changed as more and more women went from being homemakers to full-time workers alongside their husbands. These changes from homemaker to breadwinner have also coincided with large decreases in overall marriage rates and the rise of cohabitation and single motherhood. For instance, from 1950 to 1980 the rate of divorce per married couple more than doubled – from 10% to 22% [2].

The extent to which second-wave feminism contributed to these changes in not entirely clear, but what is certain is that society’s stance on women’s role in the family has shifted from that of a homemaker and mother to leaders and career women. Data from the General Social Survey bears out this trend; traditional gender roles have been losing out in favor or more egalitarian notions where women balance work and child raising and where political leadership is now longer the exclusive domain of men [3].

This post will explore how these social and economic changes have impacted the subjective well-being of women in America. Beginning with the overall trend of male and female happiness we’ll move on to how specific social changes affect female happiness such as the direct effects of feminist ideology and relative spousal earnings.

For the overall trend of female happiness I will be drawing mainly from a 2009 paper by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers published inAmerican Economic Journal: Economic Policy entitled “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” [4]. The paper uses data from the General Social Survey (GSS), a large cross-sectional sociological survey of the United States that asks participants questions on a wide range of topics every year. Data from the GSS shows that at the beginning of the survey women reported being happier than men, but since then their happiness has declined both in absolute terms and relative to men. By the mid 1980s women reported the same or lower levels of happiness than did men. The size of this decline in female happiness relative to men is roughly one and a half standard deviations. To put that in perspective this decline happiness is comparable to the effects of an eight and a half percentage point increase in unemployment.

Other sources are also available for analyzing the trend of women’s happiness in the United States. The “Virginia Slims American Woman’s Opinion Poll” which since 1970 has surveyed women every five years about various topics including life satisfaction gives a similar story. In 1970 women reported higher life satisfaction than men and have since seen it declining both absolutely and relative to men until 1995 and beyond where men have been reporting higher life satisfaction. The “Monitoring the Future” study has surveyed large samples of American 12th grade students since 1976. It has found that female student have undergone a similar steady decline in happiness relative to male students. Girls went from being happier than boy in the 1970s to equal in the mid 1980s and by the 21st century were reporting lower levels of happiness. Data from the European Union gathered by the Eurobarometer provides an interesting contrast. Unlike in the United States, both men and women alike have seen increases in life satisfaction since the 1970s and although women’s life satisfaction relative to men’s is declining it still remains higher.

gender gap happiness 12th graders

Before going further one possible explanation for this decline in women’s happiness, as articulated in the 1989 book “The Second Shift”, is that as women entered the labor force they retained their domestic responsibilities and so saw a net increase in their workload. But as Stevenson and Wolfers point out, surveys that ask men and women how many hours they put into domestic and market labor do not bear this out [5]. Men and women have seen equal declines in total work hours since 1965.

Stevenson and Wolfers then break down the GSS by various factors, including race, so we can observe how gender interacted with happiness for specific racial demographics. Interestingly, the pattern of declining female happiness is not seen among blacks whether measured in absolute or relative terms whereas the trend among Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites are very similar. Thus it is unlikely that the changing racial composition of the United States has had a direct effect on this pattern of declining female happiness.

Further disaggregation of the trends doesn’t offer much in the way of answers as to the cause of women’s declining happiness. Among whites we see similar declining female happiness relative to men across every age group meaning that the source of this decline is unlikely to come from changes in age-specific life events such as child birth or retirement. As with age, breaking down the data by cohorts yields no significant differences in relative declines in female happiness. And as the authors put it, “Thus there is no evidence that women who experienced the protests and enthusiasm of the women’s movement in the 1970s have seen their happiness gap widen by more than for those women who were just being born during that period.” So the decline in happiness is unlikely to have been caused by the second-wave feminist movement failing to meet women’s expectations in the 80s and 90s.

Likewise, disaggregation by marital status, employment, education, and fertility uncovers similar trends for all groups. That is, among the employed, non-employed; married, unmarried; those with kids, those without; the highly educated, and the non-educated; women experienced similar declines relative to men regardless. Before interpreting these findings it is important to note the large compositional shifts within these groups from the time the GSS started collecting data in 1972. Women’s labor force participation and the divorce rate were rising when the survey began, so changes in the characteristics of these groups is by no means necessarily indicative of endogenous effects, but rather is at least partially a product of the groups changing composition. For instance, if entering the workforce makes women unhappy, but at the same time happier women tend to enter the work force that could still result in similar declines among both groups. What this tells us is that although it’s possible that specific changes in marriage, employment, education, and fertility may have made women less happy than they otherwise would have been these areas of life cannot explain the decline in women’s happiness.

Turning now to specific domains within overall life satisfactions, Stevenson and Wolfers examine how the overall decline in female happiness is distributed among areas of life such as marriage, work, and health. Each of these domains is expected to explain unique variance in overall subjective well-being. That is, all else being equal an increase or decrease in, say, marital satisfaction has been shown to be associated with a decrease in overall life satisfaction. Using, again, data from the GSS, the authors found that satisfaction with marriage, career, social life, hobbies, and health does nothing to explain the overall decline in female happiness. Only trends in financial satisfaction was found to have been decreasing in women relative to men, and this held true for both the married and non-married. Unfortunately one limitation with the data from the GSS is that it does not give any insight into how these various domains of life satisfaction may be changing in regard to their influence on overall satisfaction. So, for instance, a decrease marital satisfaction among men may occur simultaneously with a decrease in the importance of martial satisfaction in influencing overall satisfaction and so, as a result, leave men’s overall life satisfaction unchanged.

Data from the “Monitoring the Future” study also provides insight into the decline in female happiness. As mentioned above, this study has surveyed 12th grade students on a variety of relevant topics such as life satisfaction and finds similar declines as the GSS. It appears that, compared to 12th grade boys, girls are increasingly becoming not only dissatisfied with themselves and their lives as a whole but more specifically with how they spend their time. Of the aspects of life that girls are becoming less satisfied with more than boys the most pronounced areas include “your friends and the people you spend time with”, “the way you spend your leisure time”, and “the amount of fun you are having”. This indicates that social capital may play a key role in declining female happiness.

Taken together, Stevenson and Wolfers’ paper offers little in the way of an explanation for the decline in female happiness, but rather eliminates many possibilities and allows future research into this topic to focus on areas that will be more likely to yield answers. Given that, it seems likely that the decline of female happiness stems from a social, rather than economic, source since the decline is seen among the old and young alike and across many different social and demographic groups. This is not to say that the authors found nothing, the relative decline in female happiness seems to be stemming partially from a decline in satisfaction with finances. As the authors suggests, this may be due to women broadening their sources of satisfaction in life to include more than just the home and social environment and thus these added concerns have lead them to become more stressed and dissatisfied. Also, the fact that the happiness gap in 12th graders seems to be stemming from girls becoming less satisfied with their social lives and free time suggests that changing social structures may also be a contributing factor despite data from the GSS that finds that women are becoming more satisfied with their friendships than men.

So far, this post has explored the decline of female happiness and where it has and has not occurred. Now I will discuss other social changes related to the second-wave feminism of the 60s and 70s and what impact they likely had on women’s happiness. We first bring our attention to the large increases in women’s earnings and labor force participation that have lead to married women bringing home a larger share of the household’s income. Thankfully, there are many large surveys, such the National Longitudinal Surveys conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, available for studying the effects of increased relative earnings of wives on marital stability and satisfaction. Unfortunately though, despite the large amount of attention researchers have put into this topic the findings are often highly contradictory. The table below organizes the results of twelve studies on the effects that relative spousal income has on marital happiness and the risk of marital disruption (such as divorce or separation). The majority of these studies (eight out of twelve) have found that the more a wife earns relative to her husband the less happy she is with the marriage or the higher the risk of marital disruption  is. These studies differ in their results as much as in their methods – they have different sample sizes, different demographic controls, different measures, and some are cross-sectional while others are longitudinal. So clearly, drawing conclusions with certainty from these findings is difficult until a proper meta-analysis is conducted, but they do provide tentative support for the theory that increased earnings on the part of wives has had a deleterious effect on marital satisfaction and marital stability. Based on the results of these studies it appears that the mechanism by which increased relative earnings of wives relates to decreased marital instability is that of less household specialization and greater economic independence of both partners which reduces the economic and domestic benefits of marriage relative to separation.


Author / Year / Study Title

Findings Effect of wife’s relative spousal earnings

Heckart et al. (1998) The Impact of Husbands’ and Wives’ Relative Earnings on Marital Disruption [6]

Non-traditional couples (wife earns 50% – 75% of income) were most likely to divorce


Rogers & DeBoer (2001) Changes in Wives’ Income: Effects on Marital Happiness, Psychological Well-Being, and the Risk of Divorce [7]

Wife’s relative earnings was associated with increased marital and individual satisfaction


Moore & Waite (1981) Marital Dissolution, Early Motherhood and Early Marriage [8]

Increased relative earnings by the wife increase the risk or marital dissolution


Furdyna et al. (2008) Relative Spousal Earnings and Marital Happiness Among African American and White Women [9]

Wife’s relative earnings were negatively associated with marital happiness


Sayer & Bianchi (2000) Women’s Economic Independence and the Probability of Divorce [10]

Wife’s relative earnings were associated with increased likelihood of divorce


Spitze & South (1985) Women’s Employment, Time Expenditure, and Divorce [11]

No relationship between a wife’s relative earnings and risk of divorce


Greenstein (1990) Marital Disruption and the Employment of Married Women [12]


No relationship between relative spousal earnings and marital disruption


Greenstein (1995) Gender Ideology, Marital Disruption, and the Employment of Married Women [13]

No relationship between relative spousal earnings and marital disruption


Wilcox & Nock (2006) What’s Love Got To Do With It? Equality, Equity, Commitment and Women’s Marital Quality [14]

Wives who earned 33 % – 66%, and over 66% of spousal income had lower marital satisfaction


Rogers (2004) Dollars, Dependency, and Divorce: Four Prespectives on the Role of Wives’ Income [15]

The relationship between a wife’s relative income and the likelihood of divorce forms an inverted U-shaped curve

Negative (Partially)

D’Amico (1983) Status Maintenance or Status Competition? Wife’s Relative Wages as a Determinant of Labor Supply and Marital Instability [16] A wife’s proportion of spousal income was positively related with marital instability


Cherlin (1979) Divorce and separation: context, causes, and consequences [17] A wife’s proportion of spousal income was positively related with marital instability



Turning our attention towards the effects of increased marital instability, it has been argued that an increase in the divorce rate is not necessarily a bad thing because it could reflect the fact that it is now easier for men and women to exit from an unhappy or harmful marriage. Unfortunately though, marriage often involves children as well as spouses. The major limitations in assessing the impact of divorce on children is that divorce arises due heavily from endogenous factors within a household or family that are likely directly related to the outcomes we are trying to measure in children. To circumvent this issue a 2004 study by economist Jonathan Gruber published in the Journal of Labor Economics assessed how state-level legislative changes that made marriage easier related to the long-run outcomes of children growing up in that environment [18]. Using 40 years of Census data Gruber found that children growing up in environments of more relaxed divorce laws were not only more likely to be living with divorced parents as youths, but were also less educated, had lower incomes, and were more likely to have more frivolous attitudes towards marriage such as higher rates of marriage at a younger age with higher rates of separation.

Another important aspect of marriage that has changed since the 70s is what people believe are the appropriate roles of men and women within the household. Traditional views of marriage are characterized by a breadwinner husband and a homemaker wife who raises the children. As mentioned above, data from the GSS points to a sharp rise in egalitarian attitudes from the 70s to the 90s [19]. What effects have these social changes had on the marriages and lives of women? Several studies have found that traditional gender role attitudes within marriage are associated with increased marital satisfaction:

  • A 2006 study published in the journal Social Forces found that traditional views of marriage were associated with higher marital satisfaction for wives even after controlling for social, economic, and demographic variables [20]. It also found that women who share a normative commitment to marriage with their partners were more satisfied with the emotion work done by their husbands.
  • A study published in the journal American Sociological Review used longitudinal survey data from 1980 to 1988 and found that as wives’ attitudes became more egalitarian their perceived marital quality declined [21]. Interestingly, for husbands, as their attitudes became more egalitarian their perceived marital quality increased. The study also found that marriage quality eight years prior did not predict changes in gender role attitudes indicating that gender attitudes are likely influencing marital quality and not the other way around.
  • A study published in the Journal of Family Issues that used GSS data from 1974 to 1986 found that women who held more traditional views on gender such as agreement with statements like “women should take care of running the house and leave running the country up to men” reported higher marital and individual happiness [22].
  • In a 1992 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family researchers conducted interviews of married couples and found that while expectations of traditional gender roles did not relate to marital quality women’s perceptions of their husband’s gender role expectations did negatively correlated with marital quality among women [23]. These findings seem to contradict the others, although this may be due to the nature of the questions asked. Rather than ask questions about husbands’ and wives’ normative view of gender roles they were asked whether or not they or their spouse should be the one personally to do various tasks such as childcare or money management.

Taken together, these findings and the findings on the effects of wives’ relative earnings, it seems that the increase in egalitarian gender roles in the United States that started in the 60s and 70s has most likely had a negative impact on women’s marital satisfaction and overall marital stability.

Given these findings, it would seem certain that feminism as an ideology would be directly associated with lower life satisfaction women. Indeed, that’s what the study cited above found, but one obvious limitation is that it was conducted in the 70s and 80s. So it should not immediately come as a contradiction that recently published studies have found that holding feminist views is, in fact, associated with higher life satisfaction. The first study was published in Psychology of Women Quarterly in 2006 and it found that holding feminist values and beliefs was associated with higher subjective well-being and that self-labeling as a feminist was associated with positive feelings about personal growth and autonomy [24]. The second study from the journal Sex Roles and published in 2007 found that a woman holding more feminist views as opposed to traditionalist views was associated with higher subjective well-being, most notably in the dimensions of autonomy, personal growth, and purpose in life [25]. This does appear to be somewhat contradictory given that traditional views are associated with more marital satisfaction and, in the past, with personal life satisfaction as well. But it should be noted that these two studies have several limitations that should warrant taking their findings with a grain of salt. The first limitation is that both studies used convenient samples that do not represent the United States general population. The 2006 study used a sample of women who were affiliated with a university campus and the 2007 study used women who completed an online survey. The second limitation is that neither study used demographic controls to rule out the influence of confounding variables. This is especially problematic given that, as one study noted, women who held feminist values were both more highly educated and earned more income. Despite these limitations, it does seem likely that feminist ideology may have a positive effect on at least some portion of women’s subjective well-being given that the effects were concentrated on dimensions of happiness that seem to be associated with feminism – namely, positive feelings of autonomy, personal growth, and purpose in life rather than environmental mastery and positive relations with others.

In conclusion, the occurrence of social changes that we commonly associate with second-wave feminism have had an unclear impact on the well-being of women. While the overall happiness of women has declined both absolutely and relative to men in the past 40 years the source of this decline remains largely unknown. It appears that all demographic groups of women have seen their relative happiness decline to the same extent and only the domain of financial satisfaction offers a partial explanation. Furthermore, it appears that social changes such as the increase in wives’ relative earnings and the decrease in gender role traditionalism have increased marital dissatisfaction and likely contributed to rising divorce rates and their associated negative impacts on children. Initially, this evidence supports the theory that the general cultural shift towards egalitarianism may be contributing to the decline in female happiness, but the recent evidence which suggests feminism is a positive force for women’s well-being call this into question. Regardless, it seems probable that whatever impact second-wave feminism has had one the well-being of women it has most likely been negligible.


One thought on “Feminism, Social Change, and Women’s Happiness

  1. Pingback: Has Feminism Made Women Happier? A Comprehensive Review | Psych and Society

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