Welcome to Harpy Seminar, a regular feature we plan to have at regular intervals, unless we get too busy to have it at regular intervals, in which case it shall appear whenever we have time and inclination for it. Each Seminar begins with a question, which we discuss amongst ourselves, and we then edit the highlights of our conversation into a post. Please feel free to join in in the comments!
We’ve talked about the questionable studies on feminism and the “paradox of women’s unhappiness” before on this site (as you may recall, we’re not buying what they’re selling), and recently we got together to dissect a long article that ran recently in the Guardian entitled “Why Do So Many Women Have Depression?”
The article specifically mentioned several popular authors and entertainers—all white, successful, middle-aged women—who’ve discussed their depression in public, particularly Allison Pearson, author of I Don’t Know How She Does It, a seminal ’90s novel about a wealthy career woman juggling a high-powered finance job, her need to keep up with the Joneses, her “second shift”, and the resulting strain on her marriage and mental health.
Of course, when studies of this kind are published – spanning the period of second-wave feminism, and showing a diminution in female happiness – the word often goes out that it is time for women to throw off their business suits and get back in the kitchen. The argument runs that feminism has failed, worn women out, and that a return to domesticity is the answer. The problem is, of course, that the domestic realm was itself a depressant – as anyone who has ever read The Yellow Wallpaper or The Feminine Mystique, watched The Stepford Wives, or lived through the 1950s, will fully realise.
Depression can, of course, have a multitude of sources – divorces, bereavements, the sea-deep pain of some childhood trauma. But those problems have always existed. I ask psychologist and author Dorothy Rowe, a leading expert on depression, where she thinks this modern stream stems from. Could it have a physical basis? Could it be that old culprit: hormones? “No, there’s no evidence for that at all,” she says. “I remember back in the 1980s, when I was working in Lincoln, and the received wisdom was that women got depressed after childbirth because of their hormones. It’s always your hormones. But at that time, under Thatcher, there was a huge recession, and there were many men who had lost their jobs at the steelworks. Their wives could work as secretaries or in shops, and the men stayed at home with small children. You suddenly found that there was an awful lot of postnatal depression among men. That’s it. It’s being at home, bringing up small children, and nobody ever addressing you as yourself.”
Now, says Rowe, while women are still often seen as mothers rather than individuals, there are many more pressures at play. “There’s still this idea that you’ve got to be a wonderful mother, but you also have to have a brilliant career, and you’ve got to look attractive all the time,” she says. “There is no way that you can maintain that and bring up children. But it’s still being presented to women all the time, in every magazine, on every screen, that you should.”
None of this is surprising, of course.
The fact is that modern women are, as Margaret Drabble has termed us, “pioneers”; while our lives have changed inestimably over the last three decades, men’s have lagged behind. We have forged careers, inched ever closer to the glass ceiling, seen our salaries increase – at the same time, we’re still expected to take on the lion’s share of the housework and childcare. Meanwhile consumerism has dictated that we should be forever groomed, well-dressed; that in order to have a good life we need Louboutin heels and Vuitton bags, a Botoxed brow, inch-long lashes, Cath Kidston curtains and a pastel-blue Aga. It’s a situation that Pearson chronicled expertly in her novel. “Is it coincidence,” she wrote, “that we spend far more than our parents ever did on the restyling and improvement of our homes – homes in which we spend less and less time.” And, crucially, she noted that “mysteriously, childcare, though paid for by both parents, is always deemed to be the female’s responsibility.”
One of the most insidious aspects of this culture is that the quest for perfection seems to stop women getting help for depression as soon as they should. As Martin says, “I desperately hated the fact that I needed help. Our culture absolutely insists on us being strong, independent women, and so the idea that you actually need a bit of help, that’s the biggest hurdle.” Merritt agrees: “I was very reluctant to be an object of pity, or to look vulnerable. I didn’t want people to think that I couldn’t manage. But the problem is that the longer you leave it, the harder it becomes, and then you just start cutting corners to keep up this appearance of competence, and eventually you just implode, or explode, because you can’t keep that up indefinitely. The strain of acting the part of somebody who is doing well – and then having other people who depend on you, asking you to do more and more, is a huge issue. But I think a lot of women impose that on themselves.”
BeckySharper: While I agree with a lot of the points this article makes about how feminism is not to blame for women’s depression, etc., I got to say, I agreed with the Guardian commenter who said: But why is it only news or comment worthy when someone rich or famous or “high-achieving” is depressed? Presumably depression among poor, insignificant under achievers is acceptable and only to be expected?
I mean, SRSLY. I very much doubt that the lack of Louboutin heels or a pastel-blue Aga is what’s driving women to get prescriptions for anti-depressants. How about skyrocketing unemployment, racism, lack of health care, the stress of single parenthood? There’s some real elitism/classism at work in this article, because, frankly, depression is not unique to white women with good jobs, but the piece examines only those women in its discussion of what it calls an “epidemic.”
PhDork: At least Cochrane challenges the assumption that women’s mental health has suddenly plummeted in this “post-feminist” era.
What has me depressed? Mostly the imploding economy and the growing gulf between haves and have-nots (and I am slipping further and further down the chain). The idea that corporate profits are THE goal. I don’t want to have a “perfect” life. I’d just like for all of us to have a decent one.
SarahMC: I don’t know if I’d be “happier,” but I’d be a lot more content if I were not constantly worrying about money.
Unfortunately, a lot of people are depressed. I tend to blame our dog-eat-dog capitalist system. People are worked to death in this country. If it’s not a physical death, it’s a death of the soul.
Even though I know better intellectually, I constantly compare myself to other people and feel disappointed and upset when I feel I don’t measure up to my peers. Everyone else has more friends, makes more money, has a nicer home with prettier stuff, etc etc. It’s never-ending. In general I think our society’s consumerism is bad for people’s mental health.
BeckySharper: I think the dog-eat-dog system is definitely to blame for imposing a deep sense of unworthiness or failure on people. Objectively, it’s absolutely ridiculous to judge your success or self-worth by how much money you make or what kind of car you drive or how flat your belly is after giving birth. But in a society that bombards us with those messages all the fucking time, it’s impossible not to absorb at least some of it.
Pilgrim Soul: I think that women are maybe more depressed because while the “feminist movement” (whatever the fuck that is, I don’t even know anymore) may have opened their imaginations about what they could do with their lives, in a material sense, for a shocking amount of women, not much has changed. I could see that sort of opening an abyss.
I don’t know what happiness even means. I mean, some song keeps playing in my head that goes, “I never promised you rose garden.” Which… is basically where I am on this question generally of whether feminism ought to make women “happier.” I mean, to me, happy is a consumer-branded thing, bought with Biore nose pore strips and a lot of plastic surgery, not an actual emotion that reflects human experience.
sarah.of.a.lesser.god: The sentence This deluge shouldn’t come as a surprise; over a period of decades, study after study has suggested that women are diagnosed with depression at twice the rate of men stuck in my mind, in part because it seems like men are less likely to seek out professional help. At least going on my own family experience, depression strikes both genders — my dad is bipolar, my stepdad has clinical depression (and his father committed suicide), and so did my late grandfather. But one thing I noticed was that the women in my family would be much more willing to *talk* about it.
I know that I constantly get depressed because I think about the things I feel I haven’t achieved, things that my four sisters have, such as a family, a career, a college diploma; but I don’t think that has anything to do with fears about not reaching that ideal of “having it all” as much as it reflects on my own feelings of self worth.
BeckySharper: I definitely think that depression is a huge problem for men as well, but the Patriarchy forces them to be strong, so they don’t seek help, etc. The idea that more women are depressed is possibly just a reflection of the fact that women are more likely to be diagnosed and treated.
sarah.of.a.lesser.god: Yeah, there’s a touch of women’s “hysteria” in this. Women are supposed to be more ‘unstable’ than men. Depression =/= unstable, which is such a weird term to use…
BeckySharper: So what do we make of the Guardian’s stab at finding a solution?:
One obvious answer to all this is that men need to do more in the home. Another answer, says Rowe, is something that’s easier said than done for many women. You have to let things slide.
“Most girls are still brought up to be very good,” she says, “and a good person is somebody who always feels that they can do better. We’re brought up on the principle that if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. And actually, what women need to learn is that if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly – as long as you get it done. If you look around at the people who seem to cope with all that they’ve got to do, you’ll see how women skimp things – saying, ‘We’ll have something out of the freezer tonight for dinner’ for instance. You need to distinguish very clearly between what’s essential to do properly, and what isn’t essential. There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t need doing.”
PhDork: Should men be doing more around the house? Yes. Will that “cure” women’s depression? No. But it might make their lives less onerous.
SarahMC: I think women could be depressed because whilst we have many more opportunities nowadays, our responsibilities have remained the same. Second shift and all that.
It’s not just that individual men have to change and our moods will turn around. The whole system sucks.
BeckySharper: “Men should be doing more around the house” seems like a very simplistic solution. It’s not that we need someone to vacuum more often…we need better child-care options, pay equity, better maternity leave, better health care (in the US, at least), enforcement of child-support payments, aggressive prosecution of domestic violence, etc. All of those will drastically improve women’s lives and mental health.
What do you think, readers?