Bill's referring to Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court and the newest New York Times' op-ed columnist's brilliantly original regurgitation of an age-old conservative and patriarchal argument against allowing women to be full-fledged grown-ups.
Having a job makes women unhappy.
I'd agree, if Douthat means that it's no fun working as a cashier at Wal-mart or cleaning toilets at the local convenience mart. But he doesn't. Like many elitists, of the right and the left, in whose thinking about gender and work working class women often seem not to figure, Douthat means any sort of job, but is thinking really about the kinds of jobs held by smart, ambitious, competent women of his own class and educational background, because those are the women who from the point of view of men like Douthat need putting back in their proper place lest they make men like Douthat feel less smart and competent themselves.
The world needs its toilets cleaned. It does not need doctors, lawyers, scientists, and journalists who may be smarter than Ross Douthat, make more money, and show no deference or desire to give over their lives to bearing and raising his children.
Douthat forgot to mention it, but having a career makes a woman act like a man, too. So those of you ladies who want to be feminine and therefore attractive to men like Douthat need to march right out of that cubicle and back into the kitchen before you start sprouting mustaches and following UFC.
Ok, let's forget that these polls and surveys are usually of questionable provenance and doubtful methodology. Let's just consider a fact about women that I think Douthat would agree is true.
Women are under a lot of pressure to be happy.
I don't mean that the feel compelled to attain some higher level of bliss on their way to self-enlightenment and fulfillment.
I mean that generally, at work, at home, around friends and family, just walking down the street or sitting on a park bench alone with their thoughts, they are expected to be happy in the same way they are expected to be busy. It's in their job description.
Or to put it another way. A man in a grumpy mood is a man in a grumpy mood. A woman in a grumpy mood is being a bitch.
Most of us know to steer clear of the man in the grumpy mood. With the bitch, not so much. Plenty of her friends, coworkers, and family, female as well as male, will make it a point to tell her to snap out of it.
Women are the peacemakers and the comfort-bearers. They are the happy homemakers---it usually falls to them to make the home a happy place to be. This is the traditional wife and mother's first duty.
Which means, of course, that for a woman, admitting to being unhappy is tantamount to admitting to being a failure.
It's worse for the traditional types Douthat wishes all women within his dating range would emulate.
In short, when asked to participate in these surveys and polls, these women have a strong incentive to lie, if only to fool or flatter themselves or, more likely, keep up their morale.
"Liberated" women of the type who apparently shatter Douthat's fragile sense of male superiority and whose senses of self-worth and success are not as strongly defined by how good a job they do at making other people happy don't have the same incentive, and they can flat out say what is in fact true, life usually sucks and happiness is fleeting if not an illusion altogether so there's not much gain in making it the point of one's existence or the measure of one's...um...happiness.
Boy, there's a post in that one---happiness is not itself a necessary ingredient of happiness.
Of course, one of the first complaints men had against women becoming liberated was that they would feel liberated to speak their minds because they were afraid it would turn out as it has turned out that a lot of what was on women's minds was not flattering or comforting to men.
Now, let's add this. Happiness---being happy---is an American virtue.
We're a nation of bucker-uppers. This is one of the great things we do for each other. We cheer each other up. We're constantly telling each other and ourselves to buck up, cheer up, suck it up, live it up, look for the silver lining, put a shine on our shoes and a melody in our hearts, gray skies are gonna clear up, put on a happy face, pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, start all over again, and shut up, stop your whining, nobody wants to hear it, and I like this about us.
It can be overdone, and it's nice to take a vacation from it now and then, either by sinking into your own private slough of despond or by finding a bar full of kindred dour spirits and share complaints or by visiting New York City or by just kicking a mime.
But on the whole I'd rather be stuck on a stopped elevator or on a broken down train or in a long line at the supermarket with people who think it's their job to find the situation at least mildly amusing. And I think it is everybody's job in a family to try to make things pleasant for everybody else. I don't mean by burying feelings, by living in denial, by enabling, or by living a lie. I mean by doing whatever little things we can do and saying what little things we can think of to make home, and home is where the heart is, so that can include work and school, bearable.
And it's important to remember that there are ways of doing that besides prancing around the house singing and telling jokes---which, in fact, can be a good way to make the place a living hell---or even without smiling all the damn time.
Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?
There's an ambiguity in the poem that's troublesome when you start to think about the many images in it that allude to pain and bruising and that line about "fearing the chronic angers of that house" tells you that the boy's indifference to his father's favors isn't just the usual case of a child taking his parents for granted. But I love the last line, "love's austere and lonely offices," and it still makes the point---there's a lot of pain and suffering, sacrifice and hard work that goes into being happy. And to get back to Douthat's rather childish notion that mothers and housewives are the happier women, who knows better how lonely and austere love's offices can be? When these women respond to nosy poll takers, it's very likely that they are taking rather small comfort in being happy and what they are doing instead is keeping themselves going.
Back when I was in grad school I taught a correspondence course in creative writing. Really. It was offered by the university. I was a pioneer in distance learning although it was all done through the mail and not over the internet, that's how old I am. My students included all sorts and conditions, but I'd bet that the great majority of them were stay at home wives and mothers---this being Iowa, staying at home for a lot of them meant working at home on the farm. I didn't get know my students well, naturally, and in fact knew very little about them, just what they chose to reveal about themselves in their stories and poems. But since their work was usually autobiographical the main thing I learned was that people who enroll in creative writing courses by mail have a lot more sadness in their lives than the twenty-something wiseguy presuming to be their teacher would have suspected or was prepared to deal with before taking on the job of grading the expressions of that sadness.
I remember one poem in particular. It was by a woman living on the far western side of the state, which I imagined to be all bleak and desolate prairieland. Her poem was a litany of personal and familial disaster. Cancer, job loss, divorce, estrangements between parents and children and brothers and sisters, financial ruin, fatigue, stress, loneliness, and not one but two tornados. I was devastated while reading the poem but I was utterly dumbfounded by its last verse which was very close to being, "But God's in His heaven and all's right with the world."
Being young and arrogant and naturally self-centered, not to mention fashionably cynical and world-weary, I was impressed, or convinced myself I was impressed, by the poet's naivete. And I went around for weeks afterwards telling everybody who would listen about it and spouting theories about what the poem proved about Iowans or Midwesterners or Christians in general---I used to blog before there were blogs by shooting my mouth off a lot---and otherwise proving my own spiritual and intellectual superiority.
Just in case you're worried that about how big an asshole I was capable of being, I kept these theories from the poet herself and limited my jerkiness to suggesting, tactfully, that her poem would be better if she left the last verse out. Which from a purely critical point of view was actually true. It wasn't a bad poem at all. But what did I know about love's austere and lonely offices? That last verse was her point in writing the poem, and she wrote back to tell me that, tactfully, speaking as a grown-up to an arrested adolescent.
And I'll tell you, I'll bet if you'd asked that woman if she was happy, she'd have said yes.
Because what else did she have left to be?