Has Feminism Made Women Happier? A Comprehensive Review

When seriously arguing for or against the validity of feminism or about the value of feminist movements we often narrow our focus to particular issues or hot topics such as the wage gap, rape on college campuses, or sexual harassment of women. While discussion and debate of these issues can be fruitful it can also be limiting – attention to detail sometimes means missing the bigger picture. In this post I will review the available academic literature relevant to the direct effects of feminist ideology and practice on women’s quality of life in various domains: societal, marital, and individual.

The Psychology and Philosophy of Quality of Life 

The study of human quality of life came together from many different areas of research all interested in scientifically measuring this universal concept. From sociologists looking to identify the effects of demographic factors on people’s quality of life, to psychiatrists who wanted a metric of mental well-being that went beyond just the absence of symptoms, the latter half of the twentieth century saw many strands come together to create a unified field of research on quality of life that suits the many different goals of the sciences, from economics to neuroscience (Diener, Oishi, Lucas, 2003).

But despite its prominence in the social sciences many people have doubts about our ability to define the quality of a person’s life, let alone measure it. After all, there are many different conceptions of happiness, such as simple hedonic pleasure as extolled by Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham, or the Aristotelian conception of eudaimonia wherein happiness is a matter of leading a virtuous and excellent life. Of course it’s good to have a open mind when considering a topic like the evaluation of the quality of human life, but in this article we will be focusing on a specific subset of quality of life known as subjective well-being, or life satisfaction. While scientific measures of hedonic feelings and eudaimonia do exist and have been well-studied, focusing on subjective well-being possesses certain advantages for the kinds of questions we’ll be exploring: subjective well-being is fundamentally a measure of how favourably people consciously rate the quality of their own lives and so it comes closer to what we would normally consider a good and satisfying life than would hedonic pleasure. While at the same time, subjective well-being avoids the issue of value-loaded judgments of what constitutes virtue and excellence (Sirgy, 2012).

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