Feminist Freedom Lies in Happiness




IN HER NEW BOOK, The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness, political journalist Jill Filipovic ponders a question that at first seems simplistic: “What would the world look like if our laws and policies prioritized feeling good?”

Filipovic digs deep into the entrenched, systemic ways in which laws and social norms — both antiquated and modern — have deliberately limited women’s ability to experience pleasure. The book reveals much of what we already know — that women have always been at a disadvantage with men. But, Filipovic argues, women aren’t oppressed because of leftover laws, or caught in a game of perpetual catch-up. The perpetuation of the imbalance is intentional. 

An attorney-turned-writer, Filipovic began her literary career by contributing to Feministe, a blog born at the dawn of the modern online feminist movement. As a columnist for the Guardian and Cosmopolitan.com, she’s called out Republican lawmakers for their discriminatory positions on marriage, reproductive rights, and healthcare. Now a freelance writer living in Nairobi, Kenya — and at times in New York City — Filipovic appears regularly in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Time, contributing searing political essays that take on President Trump and his circle of influence with the ferocity of the “Fearless Girl” statue staring down Wall Street’s Charging Bull. 

In a recent op-ed in the Times, Filipovic called out the Trump administration for a photo of the president and vice president — and a roomful of white men — meeting to discuss easing requirements on insurance companies to cover prenatal and newborn care. Cited as yet another example of men in power making decisions that directly affect — and, in fact, harm — women, the photo created a cyclone of ire. Many critics eventually dismissed it as a gaffe. Filipovic, however, wrote, “The great America [Trump] promised has white men at the top, and that’s the image they’re projecting, figuratively and literally. It’s not an error, it’s the game plan.” 

Feminists agree that social justice is a priority to fix a system stacked against women. But what about the fight to enjoy sex without guilt? To experience motherhood without feeling obligated to sacrifice oneself? Or even to eat literal cake without apology — because it tastes good? These are our inalienable rights. Female pleasure, Filipovic writes, “isn’t an indulgence or a privilege but a social good — and that women deserve more than just equality.” 

Filipovic and I recently discussed the growing expectations placed on women, the government’s role in our happiness, and her own feminist evolution.

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HEATHER WOOD RUDULPH: In a way, I’m surprised this is your first book, given how prolific you’ve been since you began your writing career. Were you just waiting for the right idea?

JILL FILIPOVIC: A book was definitely something I had always hoped to do, but I didn’t want to feel like I was just putting something into the universe for the sake of having written a book. I very much wanted to make sure I had an idea I was excited about — to which I wanted to dedicate a significant amount of time. It was also the right moment professionally. I decided to move to Kenya right around the same time that I finalized the book deal. It seemed like the right moment.

A lot of books about feminism have been reactionary, from Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, released 27 years ago, to Andi Zeisler’s recent We Were Feminists Once. With this book, are you responding to any particular movement, or moment?

There wasn’t any one moment. Being a person who writes about the contours of women’s lives, I kept asking the questions: What’s the big picture? What’s the overarching story of feminism and women today? So much of what I’d been reporting on and seen in my professional life were these moments in women’s lives made unnecessarily difficult, often by policy and political forces, sometimes by culture and social norms.

The underpinning of what was making women’s lives so difficult was this assumption that, for women, happiness is not an inherent right. It’s not a thing that is deserved — especially for women who do seek pleasure. There is something suspect about that search, deserving of punishment.

I also observed a feminist movement and feminist writers very focused on equality, which obviously is very important, but it was becoming increasingly clear that if we are trying to make ourselves equal to men, it’s just not going to work. The system is still built on the needs and priorities and experiences of men. Trying to catch up to that, it’s never going to feel like we fit. So to me, the most interesting questions were: What does it look like if women get to build the system? What is the end goal if we’re thinking about how we would reshape institutions, laws, and policies to better fit into women’s lives? What do we actually want?

The answer is what everybody wants: a safe, happy, and healthy life.

“What do women want?” has been the grand, seemingly unanswerable question splayed across magazine covers for generations. Research groups demand and receive funds to study women’s happiness — more often, our unhappiness — yet there are still no definitive studies on, say, anorgasmia in women, which might actually help contribute to women feeling good. Most women can relate to the idea of unhappiness — or at least the threat of it — being constant in their lives.

I agree. A big part of my process was trying to figure out the various components that make women unhappy. A lot of it is policy, and a lot of it is more insidious cultural norms and values, which don’t change overnight just by writing a new law. It’s the expectation of female sacrifice, and maternal sacrifice — that women will give their all for their children. There’s this martyrdom that is expected as soon as women reproduce. There’s the idea that you will give up some pleasure in eating to force your body to conform to a very narrow standard of female beauty. And rape-prevention tips, particularly for young women, revolve around giving up certain amounts of fun: don’t go out, don’t drink too much, don’t be alone with men. The litany of those tips comes down to sacrificing what, for young men, is a normal good time. So much about being female is about giving up.

You discuss sex as the gateway to womanhood, but sex and sexuality are so often liabilities for women.

It’s interesting how much crossover there is between our sex lives and everything else. Women who feel better about their bodies tend to have better sex lives. When we push back on things like diet culture, or promote body positivity, the downstream impact of that is women having better sex. When we encourage girls to be more assertive in the classroom, they feel more confident and have higher self-esteem, so when they are sexually active they also tend to have more pleasurable sex and more orgasms.

We do treat sex as both this vice and a privilege. The conversation about birth control and abortion is so much about: If you don’t want to have a baby, don’t have sex. Or, if you’re not ready to get pregnant and bring a baby to term, then you do not deserve to have a pleasurable sex life. Statements like these reflect the view that sex is for people who are privileged enough to be able to have it.

When I was looking at policy solutions, things like adequate vacation days and predictable hours came up. Good policies give people time to have sex. That seems like a silly argument, but the fact that we don’t see sex as an absolutely important and foundational part of our lives is part of the problem. Sex is a human right. A pleasurable sex life is something everyone is entitled to, and shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed of.

A lot of your writing focuses on how women are gruesomely mistreated. How do you find happiness in work that can oftentimes be so depressing?

Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes things are hard and shitty. What I don’t want to do with this book is send the message that happiness is about feeling happy-happy joyful every single day, and not engaging with the real human emotions of sadness, grief, frustration, and anger. There is power in those emotions too.

One thing for me that does feel really good and is always very striking is how many people are willing to sit down with a total stranger and open up their entire world — let you into their home, tell you the worst thing that’s ever happened to them, let you meet their kids, and share with you things they often haven’t told anyone else. Everyone wants to be seen and heard. Getting to witness that professionally all the time makes me a little less misanthropic.

You talked to dozens of women and conducted surveys of many more to test the pulse of female happiness: a single mother in poverty, an upper-middle-class couple navigating a feminist marriage, a woman raising her family in a commune. What surprised you most?

I expected more difference than I found. Obviously, on the surface, the lives of the people I interviewed look quite different. But the underlying values and hopes, and what they prioritize for themselves and their kids — if they had kids — were all similar. Everyone felt they were getting screwed.

What’s the unifying factor that’s screwing everyone over?

Everybody feels left on their own. The two themes I heard the most were, first, the feeling that it was really up to them to figure it all out without support, and second, that no one has enough time. Everyone felt constrained by the amount they were expected to do, in terms of working to pay the rent, the intensive demands of modern motherhood, and, on top of that, wanting to be active members of their community. There is a pervasive time crunch that’s making everyone pretty miserable.

Did writing this book change your views on relationships, motherhood, or anything else?

It did. The two pieces that were most eye opening were about motherhood and marriage. The idea that motherhood can and should be a pleasurable experience is not talked about. The idea is that the process of mothering is hard, and should involve a lot of sacrifice, and total martyrdom — and if you’re not doing it like that you’re probably a bad mother. That, coupled with isolation and not having resources to help you navigate that space, does make the day-to-day of motherhood much less pleasurable than it could be.

How did your personal view on motherhood change?

It made me more confident that I don’t want to join the pack. We don’t make it easy. I looked around at my own life and career and tried to picture how children would fit in, and they don’t. I don’t have the biological urge that a lot of women feel. I also have a lot of other areas in my life that bring me fulfillment and purpose. Children offer a lot of love and joy and purpose; you’re molding a tiny human into what you hope is a kind and functional adult. It’s a huge and vastly important project, especially for women who don’t necessarily get that sense of purpose from their jobs or making art, or wherever else people derive pleasure.

You’ve also written quite a few essays that criticize marriage as an institution. How have your views changed?

I still don’t think marriage is a feminist institution. That doesn’t mean feminists can’t get married or that you can’t have an egalitarian marriage, but the institution has a whole lot of historical baggage. The vast majority of women still change their names when they get married. It seems to be a very important social marker for women, in a way that it isn’t for men. It might feel personally important for men, but it doesn’t carry the same kind of cultural salience as it does for women. I’ve watched people I know get married — and I would see the women become a bit eclipsed, and I certainly didn’t want that for my own life. The more I read and wrote about it, the more I realized how challenging it is to be a feminist-minded person and get married.

How can feminists talk about marriage in a way that feels authentic to what actually pushes women’s happiness forward? To me, the idea that really resonated was this chosen family. Contractually tying yourself to someone and making them a part of your family forces you to push through challenging times with that person and see what it looks like on the other side. That’s what I’ve done with my sister — our relationship is more interesting because we’ve pushed through challenges, but we’re related and have to do it. The idea of getting to choose the person with whom you have that shape-shifting and, I hope, truly transformative relationship, seemed to me like an interesting and attractive prospect. I’m with an amazing partner and I decided that I do want to enter into what a lawyer friend of mine calls “a joint financial suicide pact.”

Does this shift in your perspective on marriage point to your own feminist evolution — to which I believe everyone is entitled.

I have definitely evolved and hope to keep evolving. It’s important to me more than it was 10 to 15 years ago to allow more room for ambiguity. For a baby feminist, many things seem black and white: “If only everybody could see the world this way we’d all be happy and everything would be fine.” I certainly don’t feel that way anymore. Part of that has come from wanting to occupy an intellectual space where I can explore very challenging ideas — even ideas I find offensive — and seeing how much pushback there is from feminists. There are issues within feminism that are real lightning rods. It sometimes feels like we can’t have productive conversations.

What issues specifically?

When it comes to things like sex work or pornography, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comments about transpeople [lambasted recently for failing to call transgender women “real women”]. With some of these topics I feel like there is a prescribed right answer. That kind of shutting down of intellectual inquiry is not healthy. I also don’t want to get in fights on Twitter all the time, so I do a lot of this exploration on my own.

I co-wrote a book about feminism in 2013 that was not wholeheartedly embraced by feminists. The accusations that you’re somehow doing feminism wrong — without the consideration that your ideas are still evolving — can be very hurtful. Are you concerned about how feminists will receive the book?

No one wants to put something out into the universe and have people hate it. One of the hardest parts about writing this book was putting so much of myself in it. I don’t write about myself, ever. So this idea of having my own life and self brought into the critique is very terrifying. I’m sure that part of the critique will be: “Why do we need another story about a white, thirtysomething in Brooklyn?” Which frankly, I think is fair.

I’d love to be able to say, “Fuck it, this is my book and my story and I don’t care what people think.” But I’m a writer. I’m desperately insecure. That’s all I care about. It feels stupid to admit that, but it’s true.

It’s honest. What do you hope women will take from it? 

I hope the initial takeaway is that you have a right to this. Women have been told that sacrifice is a path to happiness, and that’s bullshit. I hope the book undercuts that. My conclusion has several policy suggestions about how to create the landscape for female happiness, but they’re not the most creative.

For me, the most interesting thing would be if people started thinking along these lines, coming up with ideas that I haven’t heard before. We can start thinking in the policy and institutional realm of things that are clearer than “culture change,” which will actually functionally improve women’s lives.

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Heather Wood Rudulph is a feminist author, journalist, and media professor living in Sacramento.


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