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Exactly what does it take to make a woman happy?
One of the first to record her answer to that conundrum was the Marquise du Chatelet, whom history has recollected as the jilted mistress of Voltaire. That is short shrift: The brilliant marquise was a mother, a shopaholic, a passionate lover -- and most significantly, a revolutionary scientist and mathematician who suspended wooden spheres from the rafters of her country estate to test Newton's theories, and
who scribbled her insights until the candles burned to nothingness, plunging her
hands into ice water to jolt herself awake. Her intellectual feverishness prompted the philosopher Immanuel Kant to sneer that such a woman "might as well have a beard," and Voltaire himself, having received solo title-page credit for a book he privately admitted she practically dictated to him, declared that the marquise was a great man whose only shortcoming was having been born female.
Thus duly boxed in by the gender conventions of 18th century France -- and by an unplanned pregnancy at age 43 that she presciently regarded as a death sentence -- the Marquise du Chatelet brought a unique perspective to a treatise she titled "Discourse on Happiness."
To be truly happy, she ruefully concluded, "one must be susceptible to illusions, for it is to illusions that we owe the majority of our pleasures. Unhappy is the one who has lost them."
So where are we nearly three centuries later? Recalibrate for feminism, which aimed
to liberate women from the constricting corsets of sexist roles. Factor in an
unprecedented level of education, greater earning power, more economic
independence, more reproductive control and access to virtually any career, from
CEO to soldier to leader of the free world. In theory, at least, a woman's
prospects for happiness have never looked brighter.
Yet the paradox: Two recent studies reveal that a majority of American women are finding the holy grail of happiness more elusive. Researchers were startled to find that women now report less happiness than in the early 1970s; and where they once indicated greater levels of happiness and life satisfaction than men, that's now reversed.
"Aha!" opposing sides in the culture wars declared, glomming onto the findings to bolster their own takes on gender conflict. But this newly identified "happiness gap" is hardly a prima facie indictment of feminism for having worsened the lot of women, given that most women adamantly oppose to a return to rigid gender roles. Nor could it be attributable mainly to the notion that men are slacking while women work a second shift -- full time in the workforce and a second full-time job at home. The results show that women are spending the same number of hours working now, on average, as in the 1970s, although a greater percentage is outside work. As for housework, men have picked up a greater, though still minority, share. Much of the cooking and cleaning is "hired out" or simply goes undone (Americans now spend $26 billion more each year on restaurants than grocery stores.)
Even so, men today report spending less time on activities they regard as stressful and unpleasant than a few decades ago. Women still spend about 23 hours a week in the unpleasant-activity zone -- which was about 40 minutes more than men four decades ago, and now amounts to 90 minutes more than men.
And feeling guiltier in the process.