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The Achievement Myth

NEW YORK – In late September, the American press was filled with data on women’s happiness. Marcus Buckingham, a business consultant, made the case that the data showed that women have become less happy over the past 40 years. Blogs, newsmagazines, and daytime talk shows agonized over the notion that feminism – all that freedom, all those choices – was actually making women sadder.

In fact, the women had told the researchers whom Buckingham cited that they were ‘not satisfied’ with many areas of their lives. If Western women have learned anything in the past 40 years, it is how to be unsatisfied with the status quo – an important insight for the rest of the world, as we seek to export Western-style feminism.

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There is truth, for good and for ill, to the idea that Western-style “consciousness-raising” is also about teaching women how to be dissatisfied.

The contemporary Western women’s movement announced itself in 1963, with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and that book’s permission to complain – to identify in many ways “the problem that has no name.” Waves of discourse followed, helping Western women see what was “not enough” in many aspects of their lives, such as the low-paying jobs in which men took credit for their work – and pinched their bottoms.

The movement also raised the bar sexually: Shere Hite let women know in 1973 that if they could not reach orgasm through intercourse alone, they weren’t aberrant – they could ask for more and subtler sexual attention. Do you want to run your own business? Go, girl! Do you dream of equal parenting, or of being a Supreme Court Justice? Right on, sister! In every area of their lives, those who articulated Western feminism invited women to demand more.

But the downside of this aspirational language and philosophy can be a perpetual, personal restlessness. Many men and women in the rest of the world – especially in the developing world – observe this in us and are ambivalent about it.

Indeed, the definition of Western feminism as “always more” has led to a paradox. Our girls and young women are unable to relax. New data in the West reveal that we have not necessarily raised a generation of daughters who are exuding self-respect and self-esteem. We are raising a generation of girls who are extremely hard on themselves – who set their own personal standards incredibly, even punishingly high – and who don’t give themselves a chance to rest and think, “that’s enough.”

What if we in the West, by letting feminism be defined as always doing more, doing it better, and outdoing others, have failed to give our daughters a definition of success that sometimes simply lets them be? Unfortunately for us in the West, Second Wave feminism was articulated by ambitious, highly educated women who went to elite colleges and viewed professional accomplishment as the apex of overall accomplishment. Not much space was given to other forms of achievement, such as caring for elderly parents, being a nurturing member of the community, or – how very un-Western! – attaining a certain inner wisdom, insight, or peace.

What if we have externalized the feminist ideal primarily as a set of accomplishments and rigors, rather than embracing it as an expansion of all kinds of freedom – which can also sometimes include freedom from eternal aspiration?

The redefinition of feminism as “always seeking more” fulfills the requirements of consumer capitalism and a post-industrial work ethic. It is not necessarily a victory for women – or men – that, 40 years on, professional women are just as exhausted as professional men traditionally have been. When children of working mothers were asked in one recent survey what they wanted to change in their life situation, they did not say that they wanted to spend more time with their mothers. They said that they wished their mothers could be less exhausted and stressed.

My aunt Anasuya, who is one of my most important role models, delayed conventionally defined achievements in the professional world as she focused on raising a family. Now, with her children grown, she has gone off to Tibet for months to realize her dream of becoming a practitioner of Tibetan medicine. Feminism certainly opened the way for her to have a life of choices, and now to reach for this unusual goal.

But I don’t know that feminism made space explicitly to honor what I admire most about her: her open door. She is continually taking in students who need a home, or refugee single mothers in economic need, or simply making one more place at the table for teenagers whose parents are struggling with issues of their own. In terms of the way she amplifies the lives of others, hers is one of the most successful “careers” I know – and one pursued while exuding calm, serenity, and peace.

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Should Western feminism deepen its definition of a successful woman’s life, so that more than credentials can demonstrate well-made choices? I believe the time is right to do so. As markets collapse, unemployment skyrockets, and the foundations of our institutions shift in seismic ways, this could be a moment of great opportunity for women and those for whom they care.

Perhaps seeing how futile it is to rest one’s sense of self on externalized, professionalized achievement is a wake-up call – and a first step to a deeper freedom, and an even deeper sense of feminine destiny.