Identity Politics

The False Science of Feminism

September 10, 2020

Scott Yenor

Washington Fellow

Our present regime crisis is closely related to the rise of the politics of identity. Those driving our new politics seek to abolish the traditional American understanding of the family and citizenship and separate us into hostile racial and sexual tribes. It is no accident that Black Lives Matter’s manifesto aims to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure” and free people “from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking.” In these aspirations BLM and allies align perfectly with the aspirations of modern feminism. They are part of the same multi-cultural movement.

For modern feminists, women are not made by nature to be mothers, wives, or sexually modest; men demand that women take on such roles, or force them to do so, in order to control them more easily. For feminists, women must make independent identities through creative work and sexual liberation to do their duty toward sexual and gender justice. Ostensibly, if they do this, they will also become free and happy.

For critics of feminism, on the other hand, all this looks like an effort to suppress, distort, or deny nature with an artificial or unnatural ideology. Many, though not all, women would be happier with motherhood and family life closer to the center of their lives. Women have to be instructed to shun childbirth and embrace sexual promiscuity. Left to their own devices, they would be happier with enduring relationships rather than one-night stands.

During the society-wide experiment we’ve been conducting for the last 50 years, a new kind of woman has arisen. This new woman is more independent, seemingly more confident, less motherly, more athletic, and more promiscuous. Which raises the question: is she also happier and more fulfilled?

The Miseries of “Liberation”

One might think such questions would preoccupy social scientists. One would be wrong. Researchers in these fields have been eager to note the change, but not so much its effects on happiness.

No matter which way you slice the data, post-feminist women undertake paid work much more than women before feminism and have entered into more job categories. The Department of Labor reports these stats with a celebratory air. In 1974 about a third of women with children under three years old worked; now that number is close to two-thirds. More women are lawyers and doctors, although STEM fields have not “kept up.” Nor have the overall wages of women, measured in the aggregate kept up. On the feminist reading, we still have a long way to go!

In fact, studies show that there are actually two kinds of women: careerists (about a quarter of women) and women who would either like to balance working with family life or focus exclusively on family (the remaining 75%). Many more women doctors and lawyers work or would rather work part-time. Polls from 2013 and 2015 show that most mothers with children under 18 would rather work part-time or not work at all if they could swing it.

The womanly preference for part-time work or staying at home actually seems to rise with income as women are freed from supposed necessities. Harvard sociologist Alexandra Killewald finds that at least 60% of mothers with children under 18 do not work full-time. Most Dutch women prefer part-time work. Studies show the same thing in Nordic countries, even as feminist journalists puzzle over how this can be in such “enlightened” countries as Sweden.

The same gap exists in sexual promiscuity. Women have more sexual partners over the course of their lives than they did before feminism (about 2 partners for those born before 1930 to about 6 for all women born after 1950—see Figure 2 here), but there is still a sizable “sexual partner” gap between men and women.

Some studies show that men have a mean 14.14 partners in a lifetime, while women have 7.12; most studies see men having twice the number of partners as women across the globe. A study of college students between 1965-1985 showed increased promiscuity across the board, but more so among men. A 2003 meta-study shows that men around the world want to have nearly 6 lifetime partners; women just over 2.

Despite increases in womanly promiscuity, women are less interested in casual sex than men are and women are more likely to think sex belongs in enduring relationships. Women who act like men in this regard are much less likely to be happy.

In Premarital Sex in America (2011), Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker present data showing that women with higher numbers of lifetime and yearly sex partners are much more likely to be depressed, take antidepressants, and cry every day than women who have fewer partners. The number of partners for men seems mostly unrelated to these factors (see pp. 140-141). They conclude: “The central story about sex and emotional health is how powerful the empirical association is for women—and how weak it is for men” (p. 138). Another study shows that women who have multiple sex partners are 11 times more likely to show signs of depression than virgins.

Feminism has moved the lever on women’s actions and attitudes—this sweeping change is feminism’s triumph.  However, as these data and more show, there are reasons to suspect that this triumph brings with it great personal discontent—and that discontent is feminism’s weak underbelly.

Tragedy by the Numbers

Social science can show differences, but it cannot explain the difference—and that makes all the difference. Some see the full-time work gap or the promiscuity gap as expressions of natural differences. Such gaps would grow as free and prosperous societies enable women to follow their natural preferences.  Feminists, though, see such gaps as vestiges of patriarchal education and hence remediable if only government would pass a stricter sexual harassment regime or provide government day care.

Do gaps come from natural sexual differences or patriarchal education? Should we try to eliminate these gaps with greater feminist reforms or come up with mores and laws to accommodate them? Data cannot directly speak to these questions.

Other gaps related to human happiness exist against all feminist predictions. Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers observed the “paradox of declining female happiness” in a 2009 article. Their finding: “women’s happiness has fallen both absolutely and relative to men’s in a pervasive way among groups, such that women no longer report being happier than men and, in many instances, now report happiness that is below that of men…this shift has occurred through much of the industrialized world.” They see the number of women and high school girls who say they are very happy or fulfilled drop either substantially or marginally, depending on the poll.

Even critics of Stevenson and Wolfers can only nibble at the edges of this relative gap, while conceding that women are unhappier generally today than they were in 1970. What is most shocking to me—or rather, not shocking, but perhaps paradoxical!—is that there are so few studies either following up on Stevenson and Wolfers or challenging them.

Women are not just less happy after the feminist takeover of our culture: they are more depressed than they previously were. A 2017 meta-analysis, for instance, finds that about 10% of women are depressed, while only about 5% of men are. The gap is (“counterintuitively,” the authors suggest) bigger in countries that emphasize sexual equality. “In the major depression meta-analysis, gender differences in depression diagnoses were larger in nations where women had more control over their reproduction, held more executive positions, and were more similar to men in literary rates.” Again: “Larger gender differences in major depression were found in nations with greater gender equity and in more recent studies.”

Researchers measure depression according to consistent professional standards, allowing for comparison over time. The numbers for depressed females could be as high as 22%, according to a 2012 study measuring major depressive episodes (MDE) in one year. Rates of MDE were much lower in previous generations, where lifetime rates were between 6.3 and 8.6% (see Table 4 here).

Nor is this just an artifact of better diagnosis. The same differences are found in a 1989 meta-analysis of studies between 1960-1975, which found that women in advanced countries like the United States and Sweden were two to three times more likely to be depressed while there was no gap in more traditional countries like (at that time) Korea or among immigrant communities such as Mexican-Americans. A similar 1992 study found that “more recent birth cohorts are at increased risk of major depression,” with European countries and America again measuring much more depressed than Pacific Rim countries. The highest overall rate for female depression among older generations was 3.7%.

With depression comes the use of anti-depressants. Many factors account for the use of anti-depressants, including the development of more and better medications. Yet, we see the same (paradoxical!) depression gap between men and women and increases in use over time. One CDC study shows a 65% increase in anti-depressant use among Americans over the age of 12 between 1999-2014. In 2014, about 16.5% of women and 8.6% of men take such drugs. Use is especially high among white females—see Figure 2 here).

Suicide rates follow the same pattern. Many more males commit suicide, but females are closing the gap. According to one study, while 21 males commit suicide per 100,000 in 2016, the comparable number for females is 6 per 100,000. Yet male rates grew 21% between 2000 and 2016 while female rates grew 50%. This big increase of a small number can be misleading, but the overall trend is consistent with other indicators.

So are suicide attempts, which are notoriously difficult to measure. What some scholars call the “gender paradox in suicide”—another paradox!—is that men commit suicide much more often than women, but women attempt suicide much more often than men. About three women self-harm without an intent to die for every man that does.

This gap and these rates held steady between 1990-1992 and 2001-2003. Yet the seriousness of attempts rose in this same time, with 153 emergency room visits per 100,000 people in the later time period, compared with only 83 in the earlier. But the number labeled as urgent declined from 95 to 70 during those periods. Most of the increase is, it seems, among girls, who succeed less often at taking their own lives.

The Human Cost

Feminists made arguments about why society should embrace the vision of a new woman. That vision has, in some ways, come about, but it has proven less satisfying than advertised. Betty Friedan and others of the 1960s and 1970s looked at their mother’s generation and saw depressed housewives taking tranquilizers. The data seem to show that progeny of these feminists are much more likely to be taking anti-depressants, and much less likely to find their lives fulfilling, than their mothers were.

These are not mysteries. The data are easy to explain if we infer that, intentionally or not, feminism is just wrong about what most women are like and what makes most women happy. Professional researchers often either refuse to revise their prior assumptions in light of the data or cannot do so for fear of professional redress if they buck the feminist narrative.

So they must speak of “paradoxes,” as if the immiseration of many women is simply a head-scratcher. The preference for part-time work, dissatisfaction with casual sex, female unhappiness or depression or suicidal ideation, come, they imply, from the fact that our world is insufficiently feminist. But prosperity is right around the corner if we would but accelerate down the feminist road. Feminism comes to look more like an unfalsifiable ideology than a serious explanation of why women are the way they are. Like so much contemporary scientism, feminist research begins by taking its premises from creeds and doctrines, rather than deriving its principles from an unbiased look at what the data actually show.

All social phenomenon are infinitely complex. Feminism is hardly the only reason women are unhappier, more depressed or more suicidal than in the past. If the evidence pointed in the other direction, however, feminists would be using the data to tout their successes. Since the data undermine their expectations, they see in them a paradox.

This is not simply an academic debate. Our young, ever more immersed in a culture of feminist assumptions, are cheated of the solid chance at marital and familial happiness. This soulless ideology, cooked up by intellectuals who dismiss hopes for love and tenderness as malicious tools of patriarchal oppression, turns our young toward angry mobs.  Their anger, fueled in part by the destruction of their families by elite ideology, is in turn “weaponized” by our elites and aimed at the institution of the family.  The miserable condition of the black family, the cause of no small degree of our urban blight, is ignored in efforts to expand the destruction of the family throughout America.  Now those are genuine paradoxes—or rather ironies!

The inadequacies of feminism are widely felt, though seldom articulated. The public teaching throughout the Western world holds up the career-oriented, liberated woman—the Independent Woman—as the honorable portrait of womanly fulfillment and happiness. This public teaching conflicts with what many women want.

Further, it is not liberation or independence that makes human beings happy or brings them fulfillment. Exposing the risible simplicity of feminist ideology is not enough. People see and feel that inadequacy. They sense that better mores and laws could accommodate the persistent human sex difference better. If we are to restore the health of our families and our nation, we need to start moving our research—and policy—in the direction the data actually points us.

* * *

Originally published by The American Mind.