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).

And so given our philosophical conception of quality of life as subjective well-being there still remains the question of whether or not it is something that can be reliably and meaningfully measured by simple surveys that ask people to use a numerical scale to rate the extent to which they’re satisfied with their lives. Thankfully, this is a highly studied topic. In a literature review published in 2012 by Ed Diener, a leading researcher in the field of subjective well-being, it is demonstrated that the empirical standing of measures of subjective well-being is backed by decades of research showing that not only does subjective well-being accurately and reliably track changes in objective measures of well-being across countries, between individuals, and over time, but that life satisfaction scores also have the power to predict future behaviours such as suicide or divorce (Diener, Inglehart, Tay, 2012).

With the philosophical and empirical backing of subjective well-being clarified we can begin our inquiry into the relationship between feminism and female life satisfaction. There will be three different realms in which we will explore the nature of this relationship: on the national level we will explore the association between different measures of women’s rights and relative female life satisfaction between countries, within countries, and over time; on the level of relationships we will explore how attitudes towards traditional gender roles and relative earnings affect the quality and stability of relationships; and finally on the individual level we will explore the simple relationship between women’s views towards feminism and their level of subjective well-being. This information will allow us to gain insight into the role that feminism and women’s rights have likely played in the overall quality of women’s lives and to what extent it has been a positive or negative influence.

The National Level

To begin, we will review five studies that have been published which directly measure the extent to which various aspects of women’s rights correlate with women’s life satisfaction at the level of countries or geographical regions. It should be noted that three of the four studies that look at global correlations used the same dataset on male and female life satisfaction, the World Values Survey. So in that specific regard these studies should not be seen as fully replicating each other.

  • A study published by Meisenberg and Woodley (2014) looked at 96 different countries between 1981 and 2010 investigating the extent to which relative female life satisfaction (that is average female life satisfaction minus average male life satisfaction) correlated with the gender gap in education; the proportion of legislators, managers, and officials who are female; the female to male labour force ratio; and the percentage of females in the non-agricultural labour force. In all case the correlation was negative and statistically significant – between -0.42 to -0.28. That is, women tend to be the happiest relative to men in countries that have large gaps in male and female educational attainment, a low proportion of female leaders, and a smaller amount of women in the labour force.
  • A study published by Vieira Lima (2011) performed a similar analysis on relative female life-satisfaction, but used different measures of women’s rights. Looking at 80 different countries the study found that women’s social and economic rights as assessed by the CIRI Human Rights Database, women’s labour force participation, and egalitarian attitudes towards women were negatively correlated with relative female happiness.
  • A study published by Lalive and Stutzer (2009) explores the same association, but rather than on a national level this study used regional variation in Switzerland. The researchers used voting patterns from a 1981 Swiss national referendum on an equal rights amendment to the constitution of which a central proposition was that “women and men shall have the right to equal pay for work of equal value” as a measurement of gender egalitarian attitudes among communities. Not surprisingly, communities with more egalitarian attitudes tended to have smaller income gaps between men and women. But despite this, employed females in communities more accepting of egalitarian attitudes towards gender had statistically significantly lower levels of life satisfaction (r=-0.1) and higher levels of perceived gender discrimination (r=-0.2).
  • A study published by Tesch-Römer, Motel-Klingebiel, Tomasik (2007) continues in the same line of research and finds similar results: female economic activity is associated with lower relative female life satisfaction. Although a novel finding was that among countries that have less egalitarian gender norms this association is reversed while in countries that have stronger egalitarian gender norms this relationship is strengthened.
  • And finally, a study published by Zweig (2014) looked at the association between relative female happiness and economic development as well as female representation in parliament. It found no statistically significant associations above the 95% confidence threshold although the correlations found were negative and statistically significant at a 90% confidence threshold. Regardless, it should not be considered a failed replication given that no other study found associations for these particular measures either indicating that female representation in politics is probably not a good proxy for whatever mechanism is behind the consistent negative association between relative female happiness and women’s rights.

The implications of these findings will be discussed more thoroughly below after more evidence is reviewed. But tentatively the theory that feminism and women’s rights plays a role in improving the quality of women’s lives faces some very serious issues, especially in regard to women in the first-world where two studies using different measures specifically looked at this and found concordant results. Although it should be noted these findings do not conclusively demonstrate that feminism has, overall, no positive effects on women’s quality of life since there could be some mechanism not related to women’s rights that is the source of these associations. On the other hand no such mechanism seems evidently possible in any obvious way, nor am I aware of any empirical findings that support the existence of such a hidden mechanism. And finally, although these results do support the theory that feminism has made worse the lives of women; the picture is far from complete. Until we review further evidence that explores the more subtle ways in which feminism interacts with women’s well-being such a conclusion would be premature.

Effects on Marriage

Turning now to the domain of marriage I will quote at length from a previous article of mine entitled Feminism, Social Change, and Women’s Happiness wherein I review the empirical literature relevant to the effects of relative earnings and gender role traditionalism on the stability and quality of marriage.

Firstly, in regard to the effects of relative earnings:

There are many large surveys, such as 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 chart below [found in the original article] 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.

And in regard to marital satisfaction:

Traditional views of marriage are characterized by a breadwinner husband and a homemaker wife who raises the children. 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 (Wilcox & Nock, 2006). It also found that women who share a normative commitment to marriage with their partners were more satisfied with the emotional 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 (Amato & Booth, 1995). 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 (Lueptow, Guss, & Hyden, 1989).
  • 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 (Vannoy & Philliber, 1992). 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.

In summary, there is good reason to believe that gender role egalitarianism lowers the quality of marriage, especially from the perspective of women. The issue of relative earnings is another story. As mentioned, the findings are highly contradictory, but on the face of it there would seem to be reason to be concerned that as wives earn higher wages their marital stability decreases. Although it should be noted that in regard to the relative earnings of women, the association to feminism may not be obvious as it seems. Despite the fact that large decreases in gender role traditionalism occurred in the United States at the same time as women began entering the work force en mass (Cotter, Hermsen, & Vanneman, 2011) the extent to which this was actually due to the increasing acceptance of feminist ideology is not entirely clear and there is good reason to believe that the declining relative productivity of housework also played a role. 

The Individual Level

Given that on the national level and in regards to marriage feminism seems to be an negative influence it comes as somewhat of a surprise that at the individual level the empirical evidence on the effects of feminist ideology on women’s overall satisfaction is not only scarce, but also seems to suggest that the relationship is not negative – that is, women who hold feminist beliefs are not less satisfied with their lives. I’d like to emphasize the extent to which this topic has remained understudied: after multiple attempts to locate evidence via database searches and attempts to contact researchers who published on this topic I’ve only been able to find three rather low-quality studies. Two of those studies I have already reviewed in a previous article which I will again quote from:

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 (Saunder & Kashubeck-West, 2006). 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 (Yakushko, 2007). 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.

Another study relevant to the question of life satisfaction and feminist identification found that among a sample of 113 mothers of college-aged daughters there was no statistically significant relationship between feminist identity and life satisfaction (r=-0.05, p=0.6) (Rittenour & Warner, 2012). As with the others, this study uses an unrepresentative convenient sample and does not employ demographic controls to rule out confounding variables. Taken together these findings are inconclusive but do provide highly tentative support for the theory that feminist beliefs, at the very least, do not reduce the life satisfaction of women on an individual level.

Longitudinal Data

And finally, before moving on to a summary and discussion of the implications of these findings there is still one more domain wherein the association between feminism and female quality of life can be observed. Using data from the General Social Survey and other sources from the United States we are able to look back to the 1970s and see how relative and absolute female life satisfaction changed over time as egalitarian gender attitudes became increasingly popular and eventually mainstream. As Stevenson and Wolfers (2009) demonstrated in their paper titled “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” (which I’ve previously discussed in depth) in the United States and Europe female life satisfaction has been declining relative to men over the past forty years. Across social classes, age groups, and among homemakers and career women alike, the large increases in female earnings, autonomy, and rights seem to have brought along with them a paradoxical decrease in women’s subjective well-being. Clearly then this is concordant with the theory that feminism has an overall negative impact on female life satisfaction.

Conclusions and Discussion

In summary, the data that we have reviewed shows that across a variety of domains and in a variety of different ways feminism and women’s rights is associated with a lower quality of life for women. On a global scale we observe that greater women’s rights is associated with lower relative female life satisfaction and that the relationships hold true within countries such as the case with Switzerland and over time such as in the United States or Europe. We also see that gender role egalitarianism has a clear negative effect on marital satisfaction. The question of marital stability and relative earnings has received highly contradictory results although most studies find that higher female earnings is associated with lower marital stability. And finally, when it comes to the association between women’s life satisfaction and their endorsement of feminism the results are inconclusive. Although, no study found evidence of a negative relationship between feminism and life satisfaction.

Given these findings the question inevitably becomes, “Has feminism failed?”. And the answer to this question largely depends on what you believe feminism was meant to accomplish. After all, in terms of objective measures of women’s economic, political, and social standing feminism has clearly achieved much. And so if the success of feminism hinges on the empowerment and liberation of women I don’t think it could be convincingly argued that feminism has failed. Western women have enjoyed an unprecedented increase in their level of autonomy. In the United States, for instance, women now outnumber men in terms of college graduates, they have a labour force participation rate double of what it was in the fifties, and they now make up roughly 20% of congress versus just 5% in the eighties. But a serious problem lies in the assumption that women have actually “enjoyed” this unprecedented increase in autonomy. And so maybe the big question isn’t whether or not feminism has failed, but rather it’s whether or not the goals of feminism are even desirable. Does feminism actually improve the lives of women? To that question the data gives us a clear answer: not only is there no good evidence that feminist societies, feminist relationships, or feminist beliefs make women more satisfied with their lives, but if anything, the evidence suggests that some of these things are actually detrimental to women’s psychological well-being. And so if feminism should be judged on the extent to which it improves the quality of women’s lives then I think we can confidently say that, yes, it has failed.


One thought on “Has Feminism Made Women Happier? A Comprehensive Review

  1. Pingback: Reanalysis of Sabrina Vieira Lima’s Data – with Updated Data | Psych and Society

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