The Law and Economics of the Backlash

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Back in my early days of teaching I thought it might be interesting to present a feminist legal theory paper at an annual meeting of the American Law & Economics Association (ALEA). At least at that time, you had to join ALEA before you could even submit a paper proposal, and doing so was going to cost me $70 or thereabouts out of pocket, as this is not the kind of thing my law school pays for. So I braved the rather clunky online membership process only to receive, immediately after revealing my credit card number for dues assessment, an obscenity as a password. Startled, I called an ALEA functionary to see what that was all about, and eventually received a phone call from the then ALEA President, assuring me that he’d checked with the tech people, passwords were randomly generated, and he had no idea how this could have happened. (True story, which I can document.)

Somewhat reassured, I submitted my paper proposal and it was summarily rejected. I didn’t got to that year’s annual meeting because I couldn’t get travel money unless I was a speaker, and I let my membership lapse. So everything I know about ALEA I only know secondhand. And what I have heard it that it is an aggressive and aggressively male dominated environment.   So I wasn’t too surprised that very little feminism seemed to be infusing ALEA scholarship.

Whilst skinning the 2008 annual meeting’s program, I noticed this paper: “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” by Betsey Stevenson, Justin Wolfers. SSRN will try to charge you $5 to read a draft of this paper, but your can read what may or may not be the same draft for free here. To say that I find many of the assumptions, assertions and suggestions in the paper troubling is quite an understatement. Here’s just one example from page 29 of the free draft:

Finally, the changes brought about through the women’s movement may have decreased women’s happiness. The increased opportunity to succeed in many dimensions may have led to an increased likelihood of believing that one’s life is not measuring up. Similarly, women may now compare their lives to a broader group, including men, and find their lives more likely to come up short in this assessment. Or women may simply find the complexity and increased pressure in their modern lives to have come at the cost of happiness.

I hadn’t gotten around to blogging about this, so I was pleased to see that someone else whose writing I like got there first and correctly discerned that “this entire study has a rich aroma of backlashy pseudo-scientific bullshit!”   Sady Doyle noted in The Guardian:

… the “happiness” question is interesting, precisely because it is so subjective. As Susan Faludi noted in her seminal work, Backlash, one of the primary tactics of anti-feminists is the argument that the freedoms provided by feminist progress will ultimately ruin women’s lives. Women have access to birth control and abortion? Trot out the old biological clock, and tell women they’ll die childless if they don’t conceive in their mid-twenties! Women are delaying marriage, and going for serial monogamy or casual sex instead? Tell them that it’s more likely for them to be struck by lightning than to find a husband after the age of 30, and that hooking up lessens their “market value” for the menfolks! (Of course, there is a certain kind of woman that doesn’t necessarily want to get married, and is frankly repelled by the idea of dating a man that would assign her “value” corresponding to her sexual inexperience or lack thereof: the anti-feminist answer to this, of course, is always some variant on, “oh, you will care – when it’s too late.”) Women have greater access to the professions of their choice? Say, does anyone have some stereotypes of bitter, unfulfilled, unfeminine career women to throw around?

Yet, when you look at the study, without the sensationalist “women: now sad” trappings, it doesn’t seem to convey that women are descending into the black pits of despair. What it says is that women and men now experience similar levels of happiness: there’s been an overall happiness decline (well, unless you take the increased happiness of black people into account – which, again, the study doesn’t; nor does it seem to address other people of colour), with women’s being slightly more precipitous than that of men. In other words, as women and men have become more equal, their subjective experiences of life have become … more equal. Shocking!

Read the entire take down here.

–Ann Bartow

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