women-vote

Here’s a key word that Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank almost entirely ignores in his sarcastic column on a panel about feminism hosted at The Heritage Foundation today: “happiness.”

And that’s unfortunate, because that concept was crucial to understanding the points made by the panel.

In his diatribe, Milbank notes that syndicated columnist Mona Charen —  who spoke along with Mollie Hemingway, senior editor of The Federalist, and Karin Agness, president of the Network of enlightened Women (NeW)  – said at one point, “Feminism has done so much damage to happiness.”

But much of Milbank’s column is jeering at the female panelists’ advocacy of marriage rather than defending feminism. “The conservative minds of The Heritage Foundation have found a way for Republicans to shrink the gender gap: They need to persuade more women to get their MRS degrees,” Milbank snarks in the first sentence of his column.

In the next paragraph, he adds, “If Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s mantra is ‘lean in,’ these women were proposing that women lean back: get married, take care of kids and let men earn the wages.”

Well, no. For one thing, Milbank might have wanted to look at the lives of the three women who were on the panel, all of whom work, and two of whom are married and have raised or are raising children.

But let’s get to the crux of Milbank’s objection: Is it so terrible to promote marriage to women?

An unmarried woman with children is much more likely to be poor than her married counterpart. According to the National Poverty Center, “Poverty rates are highest for families headed by single women, particularly if they are black or Hispanic. In 2010, 31.6 percent of households headed by single women were poor, while 15.8 percent of households headed by single men and 6.2 percent of married-couple households lived in poverty.” Those aren’t numbers made up to scare women into voting Republican; they’re facts.

According to a 2013 Gallup poll, a whopping 56 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds are unmarried men and women who want to get married. In contrast, only 9 percent are unmarried and not interested in getting married. (The remainder of young adults are either currently married or previously married or fall under the “other” description.) The desire to be married isn’t something conservative scam artists made up; it’s something that most young adults want.

Nor is it only conservatives who are pushing for women with kids to work part-time or not at all. In 2012, a whopping 67 percent of mothers of minor children surveyed by the Pew Research Center wanted to either work part-time or not work. That’s what women say they want, not what conservatives say women want.

And the data shows that women aren’t happy with the status quo. In the 2009 paper “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” — which was mentioned by at least one panelist — economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers write:

By many objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men.”

So yes, feminism has changed life a lot in recent decades. But if that’s contributing to a decline in women’s happiness, that’s worth contemplating – and considering whether the gains made are worth the costs.

Let me put my cards on the table: I consider myself a feminist, I don’t agree with every word the panelists at yesterday’s event said (I’m all for celebrating Women’s History Month and having more female politicians), and I’m an unmarried woman in my 20s who loves the fact that she’s able to work and is grateful for an advanced society that allows women to be educated and have careers. I don’t want to turn back the clock.

But I also know the status quo isn’t perfect. Many women yearn for more flexible work arrangements, particularly when they have children. And many women, frankly, want to get married – as they will candidly tell their female friends after a glass or two of wine.

Of course, there are exceptions. Of course, there are women who don’t want a husband and do want children, and there are women who want neither a husband nor children. But there’s a reason chick flicks often end in weddings or engagements. We wouldn’t all still be reading and watching “Pride and Prejudice” if Darcy remained a jerk, and Elizabeth raised Darcy Jr. by herself.

It’s easy to mock women. (Some might even suggest that it’s part and parcel of the “war on women.”) It’s harder to grapple honestly with the real pros and cons of the life decisions that all women have to make.