In a nutshell, Filipovic’s thesis is that, despite all the gains of feminism, “Americans [still] carry, and our institutions reflect, a profound and abiding antipathy toward women’s day-to-day enjoyment and our broader fulfillment,” and that the most subversive, and most difficult, thing a woman can do is prioritize her own happiness. She approaches this from multiple angles, including friendship, love, sex, parenthood, marriage, work, and food. Again and again she finds that women who want to be happy run up against sometimes insurmountable obstacles, whether they be the overwhelming pressure to be a super-mom, while possibly also leaning in and shattering glass ceilings at work, amongst well-to-do mothers; the struggle to provide themselves and their children basic necessities amongst poor, frequently minority, women; or the seemingly intractable problem that reproduction puts greater demands upon women, thus straining even the most ostensibly egalitarian marriages. The conclusion she comes to is “That so many of us are so unhappy demonstrates not an individual failure to seek pleasure but a political failure to insist that the ability to pursue happiness…is a fundamental right and a bedrock feminist cause.” Completing the book against the background of the 2016 presidential election, Filipovic worries that, despite all the gains that have been made, “The chances of feminist public policy becoming a reality anytime soon look awfully slim.” Which is why, she argues, prioritizing feminine happiness is more important than ever before.
Much of Filipovic’s history and discussion will be familiar to anyone knowledgable of feminism and the feminist movement, but changing the focus from equality or power to happiness allows the reader to see the issues and the arguments in a different light. Filipovic is a persuasive writer, and her survey of the situation is enriched by her stories of her own family’s experiences with systemic bias against women, as well as her interviews with other women from all walks of life. One thing she does not address is a question I keep asking myself: how much of the current, apparently commendable, insistence within feminist circles on focusing on doubly-marginalized groups (e.g., women of color, lesbians) truly is a commendable call to action on behalf of those who may have not benefited as much from the earlier feminist movement, and how much it is more of the same thinly-veiled attacks on women’s power, autonomy, and happiness, more of the same old idea that women should always prioritize others’ needs over their own, something that Filipovic sees as a central problem. One thing that Filipovic’s book does make clear is that, no matter how different the outward circumstances of women’s lives, the underlying problems they face are often surprisingly similar, and are often linked to the (frequently unconscious) assumption that women’s time, effort, pleasure, and lives matter less. While Filipovic is unable, for obvious reasons given the current political circumstances, to be too optimistic about the future, she does issue a compelling call to action, along with providing much for anyone interested in feminism to think about. All in all, a timely and thought-provoking work on one of the fundamental issues facing American society.
My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.