In this week's Review section of the Wall Street Journal, two authors answer the question "Has the sexual revolution been good for women?" Mary Eberstadt (who says no) brings to bear a number of statistics, including studies showing women themselves have demonstrated no improvement when asked about their level of happiness over the past few decades.
Using 35 years of data from the General Social Survey, two Wharton School economists, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, made the case in 2009 that women's happiness appeared to be declining over time despite their advances in the work force and education.
The authors noted that women (and men) showed declining happiness during the years studied. Though they were careful not to draw conclusions from their data, is it not reasonable to think that at least some of that discontent comes from the feeling that the grass is greener elsewhere—a feeling made plausible by the sexual revolution?
Eberstadt makes a good case. Still, I think that asking people about their levels of happiness is usually problematic. Are you happy compared to what? What does happiness mean to different people? The sexual revolution may simply have produced the ultimate "paradox of choice." Women have so many options available to them that they are somewhat paralyzed by the situation. Whatever decision they make about work and family they will always be wondering if some other arrangement wouldn't have been better. Still, I'm not sure that means we should turn back the clock (even if we could). Just like we must learn to choose a flavor of jam without spending the rest of the day worrying if we would have liked a different kind better, we also need to learn how to make choices without constantly second guessing ourselves. It is one unintended consequence of the constant barrage of articles like Eberstadt's or blogs like Motherlode at the New York Times or the Juggle at the Wall Street Journal that only fuels this discontent. You could spend your whole day reading articles and blog posts and Facebook updates about whether you have achieved the perfect balance or fulfilled your true purpose as a woman.
It is Ann Patchett's contribution on the other side of this question, though, that may really leave readers scratching their heads. In response to this question, Patchett begins by explaining why the clock cannot be turned back. Well, duh. Contrary to what many hysterical feminists have suggested in this election season, birth control pills are here to stay. Even the election of Rick Santorum (a pretty far-fetched possibility) will not actually change that. What's more interesting is what Patchett suggests that those who find the results of the sexual revolution to be problematic do about it:
Let me tell you how I deal with aspects of progress that are personally distasteful to me: I do not participate in them. I do not tweet or text or watch television. If the sexual revolution offends you, stay away from it. If, say, you don't approve of birth control, then choose not use it.
I'm not sure if this is just sarcasm or silliness. If the sexual revolution really is a revolution--and Patchett compares it to the Industrial Revolution and the American Revolution earlier in the piece--then how does one simply opt out of it. I guess you could decide to simply stay on the farm and ignore machinery, but how to get around the fact that the colonies achieved independence? Simply keep paying taxes to the British? Obviously this analogy breaks down quickly. (Let's even grant that the question posed is slanted in a particular way. After all the sexual revolution had effect on men and children, not just women. And we're not even addressing how happy those groups are.)
But it is more than a logic problem that plagues Patchett's essay. She believes on the one hand in a sort of complete personal freedom. People can do whatever they want with their bodies, etc., etc. They can work or not work, have children or not have children, marry the father of their children or not. And whatever choices they don't like they can simply opt out of. But like most liberals, Patchett does not really believe in the primacy of the individual on these questions.
So for those who remain bitter about the revolution and wish it had never happened, join hands with the likes of me, who see the rights and freedoms of women as the only possible outcome for a thinking society. Together, let's make a country into which any baby would be proud to be born.
First, we could swap out baby showers for a revitalized Head Start program. Most expectant mothers would rather have prenatal checkups and proper nutrition than another stuffed bear anyway. Then we'd invite three fairy godmothers to attend the birth: Health Care (to pay for the delivery and checkups), Day Care (just in case mom and dad have to work outside the home) and Education (to set the child on a path to a successful life).
So regardless of whether one opts in or out of this revolution, it is important that we all take responsibility for those who do take part in the revolution. Indeed, in order for the revolution to achieve its true potential, we must all support the decisions of those who opt in. And regardless, we must agree to pay for it.