The (Feminist) Case for Women's Happiness

Jill Filipovic’s new book, The H-Spot, argues for a movement that de-emphasizes women’s equality—and focuses instead on their fulfillment.

IgorZD /

Earlier this month, the New York Times ran an article on its website titled “How to Be Mindful While Cleaning the Bathroom.” The piece, part of the paper’s Meditation for Real Life series, offers advice on transforming that most thankless of chores into a spiritually rewarding activity, from the beginning (“once you’ve selected your cleaning tool, take a moment to notice it with your various senses”) and throughout the process (“maintain your focus on each circular, left-to-right or up-and-down motion”). The point of the exercise is not so much a clean bathroom—“you’re not chasing a result”as it is an embrace of the notion that even toilet-scrubbing, when gone about in the right way, can produce its own soft satisfactions. “With the practice of mindful cleaning,” the piece notes, “you can transform this once boring activity into a nourishing and enjoyable moment to yourself.”

Contentment via Clorox: These are, indeed, boom times for aspirational enjoyment. Work hard, play hard, and, if you possibly can—here is Americans’ optimism bias at its most granular—extract a nourishing moment from the removal of mildew. Happiness can be found anywhere, because happiness, in some sense, can be found everywhere: There it is on Facebook, there it is on TV, there it is in the news, there it is in the ads—presented not merely as a gift, but also as the product of a particularly cheerful strain of Darwinism. You may be rich, you may be successful, but if you’re not happy, what’s the point? You have not yet won. In the United States, the British journalist Ruth Whippman has noted, happiness has become “the overachiever’s ultimate trophy.”

But it is, in that, a prize that is too rarely rewarded. And that may be in part because, while American culture openly celebrates happiness—and while, indeed, the pursuit of happiness was written, awkwardly, into the nation’s founding vision—American politics has generally had much less to say about it. Presidents are judged largely according to their economic and military stewardship of the nation. Our civic discourse, with its holdover hostilities toward socialism, has tended to look more kindly on happiness that is passively found rather than actively sought (or, even worse, government-assisted)—happiness that arrives in people’s lives through some heady amalgam of the Protestant ethic and magic. As Jill Filipovic sums it up in her new book The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness, “When it comes to pleasure, our political forces run the gamut from indifference to outright hostility, either ignoring any interest in feeling good or writing off pleasure as immoral, hedonistic, or lazy.”

The H-Spot, as a title, is subtly radical, a reference to sex and bombs as well as emotional ecstasies, and that’s appropriate: There’s a subtle radicalism to Filipovic’s vision of politicized pleasure. The attorney and, more recently, the columnist is, in her first book, taking the broad conventional wisdom of this moment in American feminism, from the sociological (women are living in a society designed by men) to the structuralist (the biases of that design will insinuate themselves, inevitably, on the people stuck within it)and then, attempting to reframe that wisdom wholesale. Filipovic is, in an extended argument whose upshot is Happiness, suggesting a great deal more: She’s proposing a thorough remodeling of the house that white men built.

“Women today,” she writes, “live in a world of unfinished feminism, where we’re told we’re equal but see our basic rights up for grabs, where we’re told to just push harder at work, or recognize we can’t have it all, or marry Mr. Good Enough.” Her solution to the ongoing inequality: a politics that, contra several hundred years of American tradition, directs itself—unabashedly—toward happiness. A politics that understands its promise and its purpose not merely in terms of macroeconomics, but in terms of macro-enjoyments. The mission of the women’s movement has not yet been accomplished; but “what could topple the most stubborn roadblocks,” Filipovic suggests, “is a feminism and a politics that reorient themselves away from simple equality and toward happiness and pleasure.”

Away from simple equality. (I told you: radical!) She’s not, to be clear, talking about pleasure and happiness in the most immediate and visceral senses (amusement, exhilaration, joy). While hedonic pleasures do factor into her argument—feminism, for one thing, will not have succeeded until women’s sexual pleasure is given the same political priority that men’s has long taken for granted—Filipovic is talking instead about happiness in the eudaemonic sense, as satisfaction that comes not merely from the moment, but also from a broader kind of fulfillment. She is concerned above all with goals, and with dreams, and with giving women a fighting chance to realize them—a situation that can only result once their basic, Maslow-mandated needs are met.

Filipovic spends time throughout the book with a woman named Janet Rowland, a 28-year-old who lives with her three children in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Janet, it is an understatement to say, is not happy.” She has been in foster care, and on food stamps. She has oriented her life, as so many women have, around what she is supposed to want—a job, a home, a partner, kids—but her desires have also been things that, Filipovic notes, “the complexities of poverty, racism, and sexism keep yanking away, just out of her reach.” The dreams are stifled before they can ever hope to become more. What Janet wants today, Filipovic writes, “is enough gas to drive to the grocery store.”

This interplay of wants—want as desiring something, and want as lacking it—is the tension that drives the book. And both senses of the word inform the policy recommendations Filipovic outlines in its conclusion—policies that might help Janet and the many, many other women whose smallest wants go on unmet. Among them: Fair pay, regardless of gender (or negotiating skills). More wage transparency. A higher minimum wage, along with penalties for companies that shortchange their employees to avoid giving them full benefits. Paid parental leave, with time off for both parents. Assistance with contraception and, when necessary, abortion. A network of public day-care facilities that would allow women with children much more flexibility at work than they currently have. (This is less Sweden-like than it might seem, Filipovic points out, given that the U.S. government already provides public education for K-12.)

And: Legally recognize relationships beyond the parental and the spousal, to legitimize the broad array of loves that inform women’s lives—and, often, improve them. Many women have best friends who outlast jobs and homes and romantic partners; that counts for very little in a political system that continues to see marriage, whether between women and men or between people of any gender, as society’s primary organizing institution.

What Filipovic is proposing, on the whole, would in practice amount to a very soft kind of socialism. Which is unremarkable in itself—from day care on down, such ideas are generally in line with policies that have been embraced by the American government since long before its leaders thought to advance Square Deals and New Deals and Great Societies—but which is also, in today’s political atmosphere, fraught. The H-Spot arrives on the scene during a time of intense backlash against feminism (and, feminists would argue, against women more generally). This is a moment, according to one study Filipovic cites, when half of Americans think it would be a good idea to require women to take their husband’s name upon marriage; 96.5 percent of respondents to a recent Men’s Health survey scoffed at the notion of a man taking his wife’s name. (“My name is part of who I am,” one fellow explained of his view on the matter, thus offering a justification that is at once entirely reasonable and, from the feminist perspective, entirely laughable.)

The bulk of The H-Spot reads as a thorough and engaging reminder of the stuff that will be familiar to anyone who is attuned to modern feminism: Filipovic offers detailed evidence of the fact that women, and particularly women of color, continue to be ill-served by a country that has for so long privileged white men. And so, inevitably, there’s a sense of sadness that pervades this argument for happiness. As The H-Spot drops, women’s reproductive rights are, once again, up for debate—and not only in the party currently in national power, but also, in a much subtler way, within a Democratic party that is itself undergoing a redesign. Women still earn less money than men, for the same work. Women of color still earn less than white women. The current U.S. president was elevated to that role despite having bragged about sexual assault. The 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale is currently enjoying a cultural resurgence, its renewed popularity coming in part because its warnings feel, to many women, deeply resonant today.

The facts are familiar, so much so that they threaten to read as refrains rather than as  verses in the American ear, their effects on women’s lives lost, in the broader cultural din, through the dulling influences of repetition. The chorus—the stats and the anecdotes that all combine to remind women that, in the United States, they are seen as less than men—is sung not just in news stories, but also in the many recent feminist works that preceded The H-Spot: Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists, Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck, Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once, and so many more. And it’s good, of course, that contemporary feminism, as a political space, has become so crowded and vocal and stubbornly un-submissive: Some ideas are so urgent that they should be repeated until they no longer need to be.

But happiness, despite the obvious appeal, is in its own way a tough sell. It is, for one thing, notoriously difficult to quantify with the kind of statistical rigor that tends to inform the best public policy. When, in 2010, the former Harvard University president Derek Bok released his book arguing that lawmakers should take new research on well-being into account in their lawmaking, the argument was dismissed in a merrily withering New York Times review as a policy-oriented form of Pollyannaism. Each year, the findings of the World Happiness Report bring sad tidings for the United States; each year, those findings are largely ignored by the people who are empowered to change them. As the Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, who co-edited the report, noted in its section on the U.S., “the country is mired in a roiling social crisis that is getting worse. Yet the dominant political discourse is all about raising the rate of economic growth.”

There’s another thing about happiness, too, and it’s a question that infuses The H-Spot: Why should happiness, that ever-optimistic aim, be also a strictly feminist one? The argument for equality that has given wind to the waves of the women’s movement is straightforward enough; it’s trickier to articulate a vision that treats happiness as a feminist goal when pleasure policy might, as Sachs suggests, benefit Americans more broadly. Inequality hurts everyone, after all, if unequally. The high percentage of men who are currently incarcerated, disproportionately African American, are very likely not maximizing their happiness. Nor are the people of all genders, disproportionately middle-aged and working-class and white, who are falling victim to what researchers have dubbed “despair deaths.” If happiness should indeed play a more intentional role in the crafting of American public policy, why focus its benefits on women?

The immediate answer may be that Filipovic is a feminist writer, with a fan base of feminists, writing a feminist book. She offers a more satisfying one, though: An initial emphasis on women’s happiness, she suggests, might pave the way for happiness as a more expansive policy aim. “If we focus on what makes women’s lives happier, healthier, better, more fulfilling, and more pleasurable,” she writes, “many other progressive goals will naturally follow, and we will have a new language with which to frame and advocate for issues of fundamental fairness and egalitarianism.” Take Janet: “No one,” Filipovic notes, “has ever suggested it is her right to be happy.” But what if someone did?

The shift would be, if any of it comes to fruition, a supreme irony: happiness enlisted to do the kind of work that has been the historical province of the feminine—softening the ground, diffusing the tensions, doing the liminal labor that makes life a little easier for everyone. (The kind of labor that, come to think of it, has long included the scrubbing of bathtubs and sinks.) But it would also be the kind of irony women have gotten used to, living as we do, as Filipovic puts it, in “a postfeminist economy with prefeminist government resources.” If happiness, as a goal, has indeed permeated American culture, it might behoove us to write that fact more explicitly into American politics. It might be time to put contentment itself to work—for the good of women, and the good of a country full of people who could all stand to be a little happier.