It is widely reported that women suffer depression at twice the rate of men. Apparently, more women are clinically depressed than ever before.
On the assumption that these assessments are true, the question anyone interested in the subject — which means anyone who cares about any woman — is, why?
As one who regularly talks to women, and about men and women, on my radio show and who has informally counseled women of all ages, I would like to offer some explanations that may run counter to currently acceptable ones, but which should shed light on the subject.
Assuming that any new phenomenon — in this case, much higher rates of depression among women — suggests a new cause, the major new cause can only be the consequences of feminism.
This does not mean that feminism has achieved nothing good. Of course it has. A movement for equality between the sexes, an attempt to remove all sex-based obstacles to a woman’s right to do whatever she wishes with her life, must do some good.
But how much good feminism has achieved is unrelated to the question of whether it is a, or even the, primary contributor to the rise in depression among so many women. One can view feminism as the greatest social achievement since the emancipation of slaves and still regard it as the major reason many women are depressed.
So, enumerating the reasons feminism has caused many women’s depression is not necessarily an indictment of feminism. Many good social developments come with personal prices.
We begin our list with the expectations feminism raised in a generation of women.
As I wrote in my book on happiness ("Happiness Is a Serious Problem," HarperCollins), much unhappiness comes from having expectations. When our expectations are not fulfilled — and most are not — we can become unhappy and even bitter. And when our expectations are fulfilled, we are no happier because fulfilled expectations undermine gratitude (we are not grateful when we get what assume we will get) and gratitude is indispensable to happiness.
Feminism raised women’s expectations beyond what life can deliver to the vast majority of them. It was hard enough for women in the past to realize their far fewer expectations of marrying a good man and making a happy family. But feminism told a generation of women that they can not only expect to have that but, perhaps even more important to feminism, they could also expect to have a fulfilling, financially rewarding, society-honoring career.
I wish all Americans could hear the women who call my radio show who tell of how they were raised to believe this feminist promise, and therefore pursued often successful careers while delaying marriage. And now at 35, 40, 45 years of age, they wonder why that career is so unfulfilling and now yearn for a man and family they put off having.
For most women — of course, not all — careers are not nearly as fulfilling as are a good marriage and family. The astronaut who destroyed her career — perhaps the most prestigious career in America for either a man or a woman — out of romantic jealousy is an extreme but instructive example.
Unless one believes that women and men are the same and therefore the same things bring them happiness, the feminist emphasis on career has been an obstacle to many women’s happiness. As a rule, women derive most of their happiness from relationships, not from work. Men need both to be happy far more than women do. Men’s very identity is predicated on their answer to the question, "What do you do?" Whether fair or not — to either sex — virtually no woman’s identity is dependent on what she does for a living. That is why, while both sexes suffer financially from the loss of a job, when men lose their jobs, they often also lose their self-worth as a man. The greater importance of work to men is also manifested in their willingness to work many more hours than woman.
To make things even worse for many women, not only are most women not finding their careers nearly as fulfilling as they had been led to expect, they rarely find the demands of home life lessened much. Now many women experience double the pressure — having to succeed in jobs outside of the home and, as much as ever, inside the home. The feminist promise that everything in their marriage will be 50-50 — each partner will do half the outside work, half the housework, and half the child rearing — has rarely panned out.
Most men will work their tails off outside the home, but won’t inside the home.
Consequently, many working women either experience increased tension with their husband or increased pressure to succeed both outside the home and inside the home as mother, homemaker, and wife.
Failed expectations are not the only reason many more women are depressed. But it is a big one. And there are more.