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.